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GOLF / THOMAS BONK

His Greatest Successes Are All Relative to Tiger

January 14, 2006|THOMAS BONK

When he saw his son win his first major championship, the 1997 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, Earl Woods was 65 and Tiger Woods was 21. The age difference didn't show. The picture of the moment of victory was simple, but it explained so much.

The son walked off the 18th green and wrapped his arms around the father. They hugged as if there was no tomorrow.

It's probably a good thing that neither one left anything on the table that day -- or any of the other days that Tiger and Earl have shared.

Tiger won his fourth Masters last April, but Earl couldn't be there to give him a bearhug.

The tournament didn't end until the first playoff hole, when Tiger coaxed a 15-foot birdie putt down a slope and into the bottom of the cup to edge Chris DiMarco. As the ball disappeared, Tiger wiped his eyes and choked back tears, then dedicated the victory to his father, saying "This one's for you, Pops."

Tiger said that every time he had won the Masters, his dad had been there to give him a big hug. But not this time and Tiger missed him. He missed the hug.

Earl was too sick to do anything except watch on television from the house the family had rented for the week.

Last week, Tiger didn't play at the season-opening Mercedes Championships at Kapalua on the Hawaiian island of Maui and was criticized by a few players and some in the media for skipping it.

For close Tiger-watchers, though, it probably wasn't much of a surprise after Earl Woods recently took a turn for the worse. A very private person, Tiger would never have said publicly that he wanted to spend as much time as he could with his father, to take advantage of every moment he could.

Earl Woods has become a very private person as well, which is how he has chosen to fight his cancer. This week, between hugs with his son, Earl is resting at the same home in which Tiger grew up, a two-bedroom tract house in Cypress.

They have a lot of ground to cover and nobody knows how much time to get it done. Earl has had heart attacks and a multiple bypass operation and complications, then cancer, and he's one tough customer. That's what you become when you spend 20 years in the military, including a stint in the Green Berets and two tours of duty in Vietnam, the second when he reenlisted at 40.

There is a great deal of Earl in Tiger, which should make both of them proud. They share persistence, attention to detail, drive, ambition, sense of humor and dignity. Tiger often speaks of the "sharing and caring" his father passed on to him. Neither is without his faults, but as with everyone else, it is the big picture by which they ought to be judged.

Even though he is in the background now, it's easy to remember the Earl who so carefully prepared and guided his son into sports superstardom. When Tiger was an infant, he carried around the house a putter that Earl had sawed off for him.

If Tiger was a prodigy, Earl was going to make sure he had the right training. Earl was convinced from the start and he said so.

Tiger would be the best ever. He would break all of Jack Nicklaus' records. He would be the first kid of color to dominate golf.

Earl might very well be proven right on every count.

If that were all he had done, Earl Woods would be well ahead in the count. But he didn't stop there. He also jump-started the Tiger Woods Foundation and got behind Tiger's concept of a learning center to give back to the community of underprivileged in Orange County.

The official opening of the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim is next month. If everything goes right, maybe Earl will feel well enough to be there.

That would be worth a big hug, maybe the biggest bearhug of all. Tiger could glance at the building and he'd know for certain who laid the foundation. Tiger might even say quietly to himself, "This one's for Pops too."

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