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Bill Plaschke

First Off the Tee

Tiger Woods may call Florida home, but his legacy began on a naval course in Cypress. Just don't look for memorabilia from the youngster.

September 06, 2006|Bill Plaschke

The old guy sitting at a table in the darkened clubhouse bar takes a long swig of beer and wipes his mouth.

"I used to kick Tiger Woods' butt regularly."

He pauses and shakes his head.

"Then he turned 12."

Bob Rogers laughs, like all the old guys around the Navy Golf Course in Cypress laugh, the wistful remembrance of a time too special to be real.

"He grew up here, you know?" Rogers says. "Just a kid who put three cherries in his Coke."

As Tiger Woods' magical summer solidifies his status as the world's most dominant athlete -- he won a fifth straight tournament for the second time Sunday -- folks forget that he didn't always belong to the world.

As he is consistently introduced on first tees as being from Orlando, Fla., folks forget that he is actually from Southern California.

As he conquers the world's best courses, folks forget that it started here.

A course with no showers in the locker room, no air conditioning in the pro shop, and $23 greens fees.

"The Bethlehem of golf," says pro Joe Grohman.

Owned by the Naval Weapons Station at Seal Beach, the course is at the end of a nondescript suburban street in northwest Orange County, behind a faded sign that reads, "U.S. Military Reservation, Navy Golf Course, Authorized Personnel Only."

This is where Woods' father, Earl, an Army veteran, brought his son from their nearby Cypress home for his first rounds when he was still in Pampers.

This is where the toddling Woods -- according the book "Tiger Woods, The Making Of A Champion" -- once pulled off his pants and urinated in a sand trap.

This is where Woods once shot 48 for nine holes ... at the age of 3.

This is where Woods learned about playing with distractions -- the course is filled with tiny memorial flags and memorial plaques and even the tiny replica of a destroyer sitting in the middle of a ninth-hole water hazard.

This is where Woods learned about playing with noise -- fighter planes from the adjacent Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos took off or landed during his backswing.

And this is where Woods, who considered this his home course until he left for college, learned about the world.

Shortly before enrolling in Stanford, Woods was hitting balls off the driving range when residents of the modest adjoining neighborhood complained about a "black" kid hitting golf balls into their backyards.

There's no way it could have been Woods, because to reach those houses, one would have to hook his shots like a hacker. There were also, at the time, a couple of strange kids who were spotted on the course.

Regardless, management reacted to the complaints by throwing Woods off the premises. This, even though he had just become the youngest player to win a U.S. Amateur championship.

Although he has never acknowledged any correlation, Woods hasn't been back much since.

Looking around the aging facility, it was as if he was never there at all.

On one pro shop wall, there is one series of photos of a top golfer. It is Jack Nicklaus.

On another wall, there is one autographed photo of a golfer. It is David Toms.

There are no Woods photos, trophies, signs, memorabilia, nothing.

This year the entire facility will move into a grand new building next door, but, as of yet, there are no plans to bring Woods memorabilia into the new house.

"Greatest golfer in the world and we can't even hang his picture?" one member asks.

Gregg Smith, public affairs officer, calls it an oversight.

"We're very proud of our association with Tiger Woods.... I've never been a part of any conversations where somebody said, 'Don't put this guy's photo up there,' " he says. "I'm sure it's just something that people wanted to do, and just haven't done."

Some wonder, however, if there remains serious yardage between Woods and his golf birthplace.

"A long time ago, there were people around here who didn't like Tiger, and that's all I can say about that," says Jim Burns, a course volunteer who has played here for years. "But nearly all of those people are gone."

Smith acknowledged that some members had problems with Woods but said it wasn't about race.

"It was about his age -- there was this little kid running around their course, and they weren't always comfortable with that," Smith says. "The age restriction had been lifted for him out of respect for his father, and then when he got into the limelight, it became tougher."

There remain memories that no discomfort can erase.

On the sixth hole, there is a tall skinny white elm known as "The Tiger Tree." His father said he would be ready for tournaments once he could drive past this tree.

It is more than 320 yards from the tee, and Woods hit the tree as a teenager.

On the ninth hole, there are the memories of how Woods wanted to challenge himself during one afternoon when the course was empty. So he convinced partner Grohman to play what is known as cross-country golf.

Standing on the ninth tee box, instead of teeing off for the ninth green, they teed off for the second green on the other side of the course, turning the sport into a video game.

"I kept telling Earl, 'Wait till he discovers girls and cars," says Ken Limstrom. "Well, he discovered both, and nothing changed."

Rogers remembers the time, when Woods was 12, that he idly challenged him.

"One day I told him, 'OK, today I'm matching you stroke for stroke,' " Rogers says.

Nothing was official. No hands were shaken. It was just a silly boast.

After winning the first hole, though, Woods walked past Rogers and, staring at the ground, quietly said, "You're one down."

Rogers laughs again.

"That was the first time I saw that," he says. "I think I've seen it a few times since."

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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