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Woods grows up before our very eyes

December 12, 2007|Bill Plaschke

On a cool winter morning, I drove south to a modest tract home in a cluttered Cypress neighborhood, looking for a boy wonder.

Sitting in a living room decorated like a Thai restaurant, wearing a weathered baseball cap and oversized shorts, was 17-year-old Tiger Woods.

He was black. He wasn't black. He was a prodigy. He was a pain. Fans loved him. Competitors slurred him.

"Sometimes I think, 'Isn't society screwed up?' " he told me before grabbing car keys and striding out the front door into the darkness.

I left the house thinking, he doesn't stand a chance.

Fifteen years later, on another cool morning, I am driving north through the lush hills of Sherwood, looking for a king.

Standing in front of a roomful of reporters, wearing a spotless black sweater over a perfect white shirt, staring out underneath a perfectly fitted cap, is 31-year-old Tiger Woods.

To most, he has become the world's greatest golfer and most celebrated athlete.

To those of us in Southern California who watched him grow up, he has done something far more difficult and important.

To us, he has become a man.

He has found a wife. He has lost a father. He has become a father. He has built a charity. He has made his place.

While NFL stars chase trouble, he chases Jack Nicklaus.

While NBA stars are involved in gunfights, he stares down Phil Mickelson.

While seemingly every major sports star dabbles in scandal, Woods seemingly remains as straight as his drives, as true as his chips, as money as his putts.

Fifteen years ago, that confused Cypress kid was right, the society surrounding a Southern California child star was screwed up.

But somehow, some way, it didn't screw him up.

We watched Kobe Bryant grow into something petulant. We watched Todd Marinovich grow into something sad.

We are watching Woods grow into something rare, the Hollywood kid who survives, Drew Barrymore without the drama, Ron Howard with hair.

I have not always been so kind to Woods in the past. I've been critical of his aloofness, curious about his dullness, baffled by his refusal to roll up his sleeves and publicly dig into such issues as a continued lack of African Americans on tour.

Maybe it's because he's older, or I'm older, but now I look at him different.

In a world of Michael Vicks and Barry Bondses, I have come to appreciate Woods not only for what he does, but for what he doesn't do.

He doesn't do anything stupid. He doesn't say anything stupid.

In an era when athletes whine that they are targets, nobody wears a bigger bull's-eye than Woods, yet lawlessness and recklessness and even surliness have somehow missed him.

While not always the most exciting interview or charming personality, he is steady, historically steady, during a time when the sports world desperately needs steady.

This steadiness showed itself Tuesday during his news conference before his annual Target World Challenge charity tournament at Sherwood Country Club.

He had just been named 2007 PGA Tour player of the year, yet mostly he moaned about his second-place finishes in the Masters and U.S. Open.

He was the tour's leading money winner again, yet he was mostly worried about finding his swing after a nearly a three-month absence.

Then a female interloper asked an obscene question about Woods and her boyfriend and sex.

Some athletes would have snarled or glared or walked away from the microphone.

Woods just smiled, said he couldn't help her, and graciously waited for the next question.

Fifteen years later, and all grown up.

"I've had mentors in my life," he said by way of explanation. "I've had people take an interest in me when I could have easily gone down the wrong path, but they've made sure I've stayed on the straight and narrow."

The main mentor was, of course, his late father. As Earl Woods showed, the effect of an involved father on his son is not just some statistic, it is real.

The man who once took me into his garage to show me the golf equipment that helped him shape his son -- I thought the dude was crazy -- turned out to be smarter than all of us.

As suspected, Woods wants to be that kind of father to his 5 1/2 -month-old daughter, Sam.

"After my father passed away . . . you feel like you didn't spend enough time with him . . . you always feel this sense of you didn't really capture each and every day with him," Woods said. "I want to feel that with my daughter. I want to feel and appreciate that even with sleepless nights and the difficulties sometimes when she gets sick."

He smiled and shook his head.

"You still appreciate those days because you don't know when it's ever going to end," he said. "I always thought my Dad would live forever. I thought he'd be immortal, you know? . . . I want to be sure that I truly appreciate those days with my daughter."

Woods seems to appreciate many more things these days.

When asked about a foundation that has donated millions to children, he said, "Golf has always been a vehicle so I could touch others."

When asked about the effect of an infant on his career, he said, "I think the greatest thing is no matter how rough a night it is, sleep-wise, just seeing her smile in the morning, you forget everything."

Before leaving the interview room Tuesday, Woods stopped and chatted briefly with the writers he has known over the years.

He didn't rush out. He was no longer the impatient kid.

Fifteen years ago, when he picked up the keys and left my interview in his Cypress home, his mother, Kultida, followed him to the door.

He was hurried. She was worried. As he revved the family car and pulled out of the driveway, she screamed into the night: "Tiger, where are you going?"

Now we know. We never could have dreamed it, but now we know.

--

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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