Of all thefathers of all the athletes I've ever interviewed, none stick to the walls ofmemory more than Earl Woods. Three gates had to be passed to earn thatinterview: a cool stare, a cold grunt, a frigid silence. But once you werein.... Whoa, Nellie!
Big furnace. Bigfriction. Big contradiction. Love and anger, bluster and wisdom, life and deathall rubbing one another, spitting sparks. "He could slit your throat,"said Tiger, "and then sit down and eat his dinner."
And discourse forhours, at that dinner, about love and healing, or drop a beauty like this:"There's only now. You must understand that time is just a linearmeasurement of successive increments of now. Anyplace you go on that line isnow, and that's how you have to live it."
May 14, 2006
Here was a manwhose parents both died by the time he was 13, who asked out of his job as anArmy public information officer to eyeball death as a Green Beret in Vietnam,who demanded to know why he lived. "Searching for something, alwayssearching, never satisfied," his second wife, Kultida, told me. "Hecouldn't relax. Sometimes he stayed awake till three or four in the morning,just thinking."
Finally he foundhis reason for existence: to spawn, in every physical, spiritual andpsychological sense of the word, Tiger Woods. Everything that Earl had sufferedand survived made sense if Tiger became a golfing genius--but, no, that wasn'tenough--and a man who changed the world. "He's the bridge between the Eastand the West," Earl declared. "He is the chosen one. He'll have thepower to impact nations. Not people. Nations."
When Earl'ssearch ended last week, the scoreboard read, ten majors won, no world changed.If he can possibly bear it ... may he rest in peace.
Earl woods wasfamous for his candor (Scotland sucks) and for his immodesty (Tiger will bebigger than Gandhi), but he could be coy and political when it suitedhim--another sign of his intelligence. When Fuzzy Zoeller cracked hischicken-and-collard-greens joke as Tiger was wrapping up his 12-shot victory atAugusta in 1997, the world turned on the Fuzzster. At least Oprah and JesseJackson did. Earl and Tiger made themselves very unavailable. Zoeller believedthat had there been one supportive comment from Earl when the whole thing wasblowing up, he might have kept his fishing show on ESPN. In Fuzzy's mind allthe press needed was for Earl to say, "Fuzzy was trying to be funny--badjoke," and the incident would have gone away. But Earl wouldn't talk, notthen and not for years afterward.
There was reallyno way to know for sure if Fuzzy had it right about that. Maybe Earl and Tigerreally did think that Fuzzy's racist comment was a big deal. Then, late in2001, when Fuzzy was about to join the senior tour, I asked Earl about theincident, and the time was right. He said, "Fuzzy wasn't being malicious inthose comments. He's a habitual comedian. For that he was crucified. I wasappalled [at] the media reaction, but I couldn't say anything." In 1997 hefelt he couldn't. In 2001 he felt he could. He knew what had happened in fouryears. His son had eclipsed Oprah and Jackson. Tiger still wasn't Gandhi, buthe was getting there.
Spared for aPurpose
I caught up withEarl Woods in the spring of 2000. Even then Tiger and his mother were girdingthemselves for his passing. Earl had already had two open-heart surgeries, buthe refused to alter his fatty diet, his killing habits. Everyone around himseemed resigned. After talking to him, I thought it was clear: To Earl hislife's work was all but done. It was late on a Tuesday, his boy about to tee itup at La Costa. Tiger was, at that time, winning tournaments with spectacularease. We were in Earl's hotel room. The afternoon light dissolved into dusk.The air grew dense as he smoked one cigarette after another.
"My health isnot germane because I have no right to be here today," he said. "I'msupposed to be dead a long time ago. I'm supposed to be dead four or five timesin combat. I was spared for a purpose. I couldn't understand what that purposewas until Tiger came along, and then I knew. And I devoted my entire life tomaking it possible.
"You can'tfire your father; you're stuck with him. Here's how I kept Tiger with a levelhead: As soon as he'd get off a little bit, I'd look at him and say, 'Youwasn't s--- before, you ain't s--- now, and you're never going to be s---.' Andhe'd start laughing. He loves it. To this day, I do that, and then he joins inwith me for the last part, and we die laughing."
In march 2000, ashis son was ramping up for what would be the greatest season in golf history, Ivisited Earl Woods at the family home in Cypress, Calif. The house was anunassuming place on a corner lot in a quiet neighborhood. The only hint of theoccupant was in the driveway: a silver 500 SL, which Tiger had given to hisfather after earning it with a victory at the 1997 Mercedes Championships.
I had come toCypress to interview Earl about the local courses on which Tiger had learnedthe game, and the topic must have made the old man sentimental because he spentmuch of the afternoon showing off the memorabilia he had squirreled away in thehouse. There were lots of clubs, including Tiger's first one-iron, plus variousmomentous scorecards and a closet full of golf shirts worn during competitionsgoing as far back as high school. "Don't worry, they've beenlaundered," Earl said, pulling one out to show me. It was from the 1996NCAA Championships, which Tiger, then a Stanford sophomore, won to become onlythe third player, after Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson, to take the NCAAs andthe U.S. Amateur in the same year. (Ryan Moore has since joined the club.)
Strictlyspeaking, this was not the house Tiger grew up in. A few years earlier it hadundergone a top-to-bottom remodeling, with the granite, marble, unfinished rockand beveled mirrors reflecting Earl's cool aesthetic. Always looking ahead, hehad spruced up the place because he hoped to someday turn the house into amuseum, and his long-range dream was to have it declared a national historicmonument. "I want people to know Tiger didn't grow up in the ghetto and hedidn't grow up in a mansion in Beverly Hills but, rather, [in] a nice, quietmiddle-class neighborhood--the epitome of the American dream," Earlsaid.
While we spoke,he reclined in an oversized leather armchair. With his paunch and ever-recedinghairline, Earl looked like a beatific Buddha. Throughout my visit a young womanfloated around, straightening up. I was tickled by her appearance. As a catcherat Kansas State, Earl had broken the color barrier in the old Big SevenConference, and now his maid had blonde hair and blue eyes.
As we wereshaking hands goodbye, I commented on the gorgeous Rolex that Earl was wearing.It was part of Tiger's booty for winning the 1999 PGA. As Earl explained it,the contract Tiger had with Rolex compelled him to wear one--and only one--makeof its watches, so Dad got to enjoy another reward from the career he hadhelped launch. "Ain't life a bitch?" he said, bidding me adieu.
Anyone who wroteabout Tiger Woods in his amateur days remembers his proud father pulling outthe wallet and producing a snapshot of a diapered baby. "A tennis ball justshot out the door," Earl would say, handling the drugstore print by theedges. And there was little Tiger, a tad out of focus, caught in the nowfamiliar follow-through but with a vacuum-cleaner attachment in his handsinstead of a golf club.
When Tiger was 16and the reigning U.S. Junior champion, he made his PGA Tour debut in the 1992Los Angeles Open. I walked with Earl, who was then 60, as he followed his sonaround eucalyptus-shaded Riviera Country Club. While we talked, Earl listenedthrough earphones to a light-jazz tape recorded by Tiger off the Quiet Storm, aBerkeley radio station. When Tiger was over a putt and the gallery was hushed,I could hear Earl breathing beside me and the faint, tinny sound of a soulfulsaxophone.