Cheyenne Woods never doubted she could win. But with the expected comparisons to Uncle Tiger and the constant questions, it got to a point where she felt like she was making appearances rather than competing. She lost focus.
“People weren’t as concerned about my actual results as they were about my family,” Woods said.
Now it’s a lot of both.
Woods, fresh off her first professional victory on a major tour in Australia, headlines the Symetra Tour’s season-opening event this week in Mesa, Ariz. Woods, a 23-year-old native of Phoenix, lives in a condo 35 minutes away from Longbow Golf Club and will have plenty of family and friends out this weekend showing their support at the Visit Mesa Gateway Classic.
After missing the cut at last year’s LPGA Q-School – a mostly mental miscue – Woods has signed up for all 20 Symetra Tour events this year. A top-10 finish on the developmental tour’s money list would give her a card for the 2015 LPGA season. She spent last season playing on the Ladies European Tour, with her best result, a tie for 12th, coming at the Lalla Meryem Cup in Morocco.
Woods’ victory at the Volvik RACV Ladies Masters moved the needle so much that Golf Channel, which didn’t originally carry the tournament, broadcast a special airing of the event two days after it ended.
“I didn’t realize how much impact it would have and how much power,” Woods said Wednesday by phone from Mesa. “As soon as I turned on my phone, I saw how big it had really become. For me, it was really overwhelming.”
Twelve years ago, Mike LaBauve listened to a voicemail on his phone that started out like this: “Yes, this is Mr. Woods, Earl Woods. You may know my son Tiger.” LaBauve immediately thought it was a friend pulling a prank. But as the message continued, he realized it was no joke.
Earl Woods and his son had researched instructors in the Phoenix area for Cheyenne, and Earl wanted to interview LaBauve.
“I want you to take a look at her,” Earl Woods said. “Video if you would before, and what you would do with her and I want to show it to Tiger.”
Needless to say, LaBauve got the job. And 12 years later, he and Cheyenne are still together.
“He’s someone I can rely on and trust, and I’m huge on that,” Cheyenne said of LaBauve.
After Woods failed to earn her card Q-School last December, she took a month off before going to see LaBauve.
“Your full swing is good,” he told her. “It’s not what’s keeping you from being a world-class player.”
For the rest of the offseason, LaBauve said he probably watched Woods’ full swing for less than two minutes. They had one goal: make her wedge and putter weapons in competition.
The work paid off in Volvik RACV Ladies Masters at Royal Pines Resort, where Woods said the consistency of her short game separated her from the field. The next week at the Australian Women’s Open, where Woods tied for 23rd, she played for the first time alongside Stacy Lewis, the No. 3 player in the Rolex Rankings, and saw how much more room there was to improve.
“I think she’s just starting to figure out how good she is and how good she can be,” LaBauve said.
Susan Woods, who was married to Earl Woods Jr., Tiger’s half-brother, can’t help but laugh when she thinks about the first time she took Cheyenne to play in a junior girls tournament in Phoenix. An 8-year-old Woods had never before kept score and shot something like 81 for nine holes.
“She said, ‘Mom, I’m in first place! I’ve got the highest score!’ ” Susan recalled. “She thought she’d won the tournament.”
Susan had to then gently explain that this wasn’t like basketball, a more familiar sport.
Cheyenne was 2 years old when she first stepped onto a golf course. Susan pushed her in a stroller around Riviera Country Club, site of the PGA Tour’s annual Los Angeles event, to watch Tiger play.
It was Earl who got Cheyenne started in the game and nurtured her mostly over the phone. She saw him a couple of a times a year in California, during spring break and over the summer when she competed in the Callaway Junior World.
“The one thing he always told me was, she’s gotta have fun with it,” Susan said. “Don’t push or prod; she’s got to want to do it within herself. He was just so special.”
The first year Cheyenne played in San Diego at Junior World, Earl came out to watch. The proud grandfather, who died in 2006, was then back in the hotel room after the round giving her a chipping lesson over a pillow.
“She was the apple of his eye,” Susan said. “He just adored her.”
These days, Cheyenne mostly communicates with Tiger by text and Twitter. He’s there for moral support more so than swing advice.
She’s used to getting the same questions every week – “How often do you play golf with Tiger?” and “How often do you talk to Tiger?” – yet doesn’t resent them. She gets it.
The Wake Forest graduate was the 2011 ACC champion and the stroke-play medalist at the 2011 Women’s Amateur Public Links. Woods finished her career with the school’s lowest career scoring average (74.31) and was a two-time All-American. She turned professional in 2012.
“It’s not a question of whether I can play or not,” Woods said of the early hype. “It was just blown up a little bit. For me to finally break through and win and put that on the back burner and focus on my professional career as Cheyenne Woods …”
Let’s just say Earl would be proud.