2006: The man who molded a legend: earl woods
Earl Woods made the most of his mulligan as a parent. He had two boys and a girl in a previous marriage but regretted he didn’t spend enough time with them because of Army demands. He would not make the same mistake the second time around with a son he nicknamed Tiger.
After one such long absence from his first family, his young daughter Royce asked, “Mommy, who is that man?” It sobered him that he had become a stranger in his own home.
“So when this opportunity came to be there all the time with Tiger, we never let anything stand in the way,” Earl Woods told Golfweek in a lengthy interview five years ago. “We organized our lives around him.”
Tiger Woods would grow up to be one of the most dominant golfers in the game’s history, a champion at every level, someone who has set unbreakable records, a player who has taken golf income to previously unthinkable levels. He would be guided from the start by a wise, opinionated, playful man who took up golf at age 42 and got his handicap down to 1.
The driving force behind his son’s remarkable career, Earl Woods died May 3 in Cypress, Calif., in the modest home where he lived for decades and never moved out of even though his son has earned more than $80 million annually in recent years. He was 74.
“My dad was my best friend and greatest role model, and I will miss him deeply,” Tiger Woods said on his Web site. “I’m overwhelmed when I think of all of the great things he accomplished in his life. He was an amazing dad, coach, mentor, soldier, husband and friend. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”
Long a cigarette smoker, Earl Woods had heart bypass surgery in 1986, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998 and suffered a recurring bout of cancer in 2004. The latest cancer spread throughout his body, keeping him from watching his son play in person since late 2004.
Woods leaves behind this important legacy: He’s a black man celebrated for being a great father. The man who talked about his son’s capacity for changing the world in fact altered things himself in that regard.
He would refer to that serious social subject in a speech upon being honored by the National Father’s Day Committee in 1998.
“American black males have a legacy of running away and letting their children be raised by the mothers,” he said. “But here is one who stayed.”
And gave a precious commodity. Time.
“He was tough, really tough, but always fair,” said Wally Goodwin, who coached Tiger at Stanford.
“I remember feeling after the first couple times I met Earl and his wife that if everybody’s parents spent as much time and cared as much as they did with Tiger, the world would be a better place.”
The committed plan of Earl and Kultida Woods was simple: to support their son to be the best he could be in whatever field he chose.
“Plumber or fireman or whatever,” the father said in 2000. “If he chose to give up golf tournaments now, it would be OK with me.”
As it happened, golf was an early passion for the young Woods. One misconception was that Earl shoved his son into golf.
“Everybody thought Earl pushed him, but it was the complete opposite,” said Butch Harmon, Tiger’s coach for about a decade, starting in 1993. “Tiger always wanted him to take him to the course. It was always, ‘Take me to the course.’ ”
Not much bothered the elder Woods more than comparisons to perceived overzealous fathers like those of tennis stars Jennifer Capriati and sisters Venus and Serena Williams. Woods said he “felt sorry for kids whose parents push them and don’t get out of the way and let them grow into adults.”
Those around back in the day liked what they saw.
“The plan was not to mold the perfect golfer, but to give Tiger the opportunity to reach his dreams and potential,” said Dr. Jay Brunza, a psychologist who worked with the golfer mentally from age 13 until early in his pro career. “If Tiger said he wanted to be a stamp collector, they (parents) would say, ‘How soon do you want to go to the post office?’ ”
Stephen Hamblin, longtime executive director of the American Junior Golf Association, called Woods “one of the best parents to come through the AJGA” and liked his attitude that failure was important in learning.
Hamblin recalled a day when Tiger made consecutive double bogeys and was in jeopardy of missing the cut at the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions. The father, near the clubhouse scoreboard when he heard of the troubles, belly laughed and said, “That would be the best thing for that boy. He needs a good dose of humble pie.”
Though he was prone to making eye-opening remarks, he usually turned out to be right. Case in point: Asked in 2000 if he had any regrets about the training of Tiger, the proud man said, “Absolutely none. It was flawless. The results speak for themselves.”
An argument could be made that Tiger Woods turned out to be a better professional golfer than even Earl had forecast.
“In spite of the fact he made some outrageous statements, like comparing him to Gandhi, a lot of what he said was true,” said Nike Golf president Bob Wood.
That was a reference to a 1996 Sports Illustrated story in which Earl referred to Tiger as the “Chosen One.” He was quoted as saying his son would “do more than anyone in history to change the course of humanity” – more than Buddha, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
Three years later, however, Woods told Golfweek he had been misquoted, saying he couldn’t believe anyone would say something “so completely asinine.”
Earl Woods was nothing if not candid. He could be brusque. Nike’s Wood characterized him as someone “not easy to get to know. You had to earn his trust.”
He was an outstanding athlete in his own right. He was the first black to play baseball in the Big Eight Conference, as a catcher for Kansas State University.
Woods said he was offered a contract to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues after his freshman year, but he decided to pursue his education and graduated in 1953 with a sociology degree. Twenty years later, he took up golf and nearly became a scratch player.
Woods served as a Green Beret in the Vietnam War, where he did two tours and ranked as high as lieutenant colonel. He would nickname his son Eldrick “Tiger” after his friend Nguyen Phong, a South Vietnamese colonel who he had called Tiger because of bravery.
While in Southeast Asia, Woods would meet his second wife, Kultida Punsawad, a receptionist in Thailand. Married in 1969, they raised a son who won three consecutive U.S. Junior tournaments followed immediately by three consecutive U.S. Amateurs and a professional career that features 48 PGA Tour titles, including 10 major championships.
In his late preteens, Tiger asked for his father’s counsel on match play. Four months of mind games ensued.
In the middle of his son’s backswing, Earl would drop clubs, yell or throw six balls in front of him. At address the kid would be told not to hit the ball out of bounds or into water.
“I got him so angry he’d want to kill me,” the father said. “I’d get him to the breaking point, then back off. It was like tempering steel.
“Finally one day I did all these things and he smiled and didn’t react. I said, ‘Son, the training is over. And I’ll make you a promise. You’ll never run into anyone as mentally tough as you.’ ”
You might say it paid off.