Champion golfer Tiger Woods has had a golf club in his hand ever since he was a toddler, always under the watchful eye of his Army Ranger dad. But never before has he taken so long a break at the height of golf season, and now returns after nine weeks to face his life’s most challenging task. The passing of his father Earl capped a lifelong journey for one of sports’ most storied father-son relationships, and prompted an unscheduled break in Tiger’s 2006 golf season. The timing is also especially poignant, as Tiger competes at New York’s Winged Foot Golf Club for this weekend’s U.S. Open, which ironically ends on Father’s Day.
"My Dad was my best friend and greatest role model. He was an amazing dad, coach, mentor, soldier, husband and friend," Tiger said after his father died May 3.
But for Tiger, the son of an Army Ranger who always looked back with pride on his two tours of duty in Vietnam, every day is Father’s Day and a test of his legendary grace under pressure. Except for a periodic – and uncharacteristically human – profanity shouted on a missed shot, Tiger’s icy cool demeanor has become legendary in the sport. It seems he always delivers when the chips are down. Yet this time around, he’s reaching deeper than he’s ever done before.
"I really had no desire to get back to the game of golf," Woods said of his layoff from the game. "I think one of the hardest things for me, in all honesty, was to get back to the game of golf, because a lot of my memories, great memories that I have with my dad, are at the golf course."
"It was hard at times going out there late in the evening like I always do to practice," Tiger said, "and I remember starting back -- anytime you take time off and start back, you always work on your fundamentals: grip, posture, stance, alignment. Well, that’s what I learned from Dad."
A Job to Do
Earl Dennison Woods was born March 5, 1932, in Manhattan, Kansas. He attended Kansas State University on a baseball scholarship at a time when schools never held such privileges for minorities. He earned a degree in sociology in 1953, joined the army in 1954 and stayed 20 years, where he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Green Berets. It seems Earl’s military background was a great foundation for teaching Tiger the elements of mental toughness.
"Most people cannot or will not discuss their combat experiences," Earl Woods once told Golf Digest Magazine. "It’s too traumatic and painful for them. I saw all the things you see in war -- dead bodies, brains all over the place, friends dying -- and I can talk about it. I had a mind-set that this was war, and that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I had a job to do. I didn’t overanalyze it. I loved myself too much to let it take something away from me."
A Loving Father
But nonetheless, Tiger’s human. At a press conference ahead of the US Open, Tiger revealed his most heartfelt side, when identifying his father’s greatest gift to him.
"Love," Woods said. "That’s basically it. The love that we shared for one another and the respect that we had for one another was something that’s pretty special."
So on the eve of a comeback, not only to regain the dominance that he’s held over the game for 10 years, but also to reaffirm everything that his father’s ever meant to him, is Tiger Woods confident that he will find a place from which to draw strength without Earl Woods? "You’re going to go through periods where it’s just tough," he said. "It tests every bit of you. But if you’ve got a heart, you’re going to be all right."