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Updated: December 28, 2009 02:51 IST

Father, teenager, son — searching for real Tiger Woods

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Tiger Woods with wife Elin Nordegren.
AP
Tiger Woods with wife Elin Nordegren.

The golfers lamenting Tiger Woods’ indefinite leave from the PGA Tour because he is their cash cow are out of bounds. Only two people are truly dependent on Woods, and earlier this year, he could not stop smiling when he talked about them. His two-year-old daughter, Sam, and 10-month-old son, Charlie, brought out Woods’ softer side in interviews. When I covered Woods early in his career, the only warmth he exuded in news conferences came from the vibrant reds of his signature Sunday shirts.

This year was different. Returning to competitive golf in late February after a nine-month injury-induced absence, Woods drew me in with a smile that started in his eyes when he talked about his children. When he was asked about the birth of Charlie or how he occupied himself while recovering from knee surgery, his eyes grew moony and his voice was lilting — a marked departure from his monotone.

He talked about cutting practice short to spend time with Charlie. He expressed delight in the rapid development of Sam. “I didn’t realise how much I loved being home,” he said.

This melting glacier of a golfer was so much more interesting, and likeable, than the ice man who had won 14 major titles. Woods’ global warming required further examination, so I tracked him around the course in a kind of scavenger hunt in the first months of his six-win campaign. I was searching for more clues to flesh out the Clark Kent alter ego of golf’s Superman, and I collected enough material to write two articles. After a late-night accident last month and Woods’ subsequent admission of infidelity, the headlines of those articles read like punch lines: “The Family Guy Is Back on the Course” and “All Eyes Are on Tiger, the Father.”

Woods’ parenting role model was his father, Earl, who was committed to rearing him after having two sons and a daughter in a failed first marriage. Earl, a retired Army officer, attributed the divorce to military obligations that took him away from the family. Asked how he would manage to be there for his children when golf takes him away from home so much, Woods told me, “It’s going to be a lot more difficult, there’s no doubt.”

Maybe it is impossible. Perhaps Woods was destined to be like his father, only not in the way he had hoped. Over lunch on the veranda at the Masters one year, Earl Woods said, “I’ve told Tiger that marriage is unnecessary in a mobile society like ours.” The way Woods talked about his children, I was sure he was going to prove his father wrong. — Karen Crouse

Regular guy?

To hear his old friends and college buddies tell it, Tiger Woods was a regular guy in the classrooms and dorm rooms at Stanford in the 1990s. Maybe he was. If those recollections are honest, those friends may be dealing with shock at revelations about his off-course scandal or guilt in having been complicit in it.

Woods was definitely not a regular guy when I first encountered him in 1992. A whippetlike 16-year-old, he was at the Riviera Country Club to play in the Los Angeles Open, a PGA Tour event. This was before all the millions and the minions and the image-building and the carefully shaped messaging that created the cardboard-cutout Tiger that lived in 30-second television spots and on billboards.

Even then, Woods knew where he was most comfortable and where he belonged. Oozing confidence, he waded through the crowds, eyes set on the sanctuary inside the yellow gallery ropes. That was his space, where the joy of creativity and competition could be expressed with an array of shots rarely seen in a threesome of professionals, let alone from one skinny amateur.

I was cured of athlete worship at age 11 near the old Yankee Clipper Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, when my hero Mickey Mantle told me exactly what to do with my autograph request. Since then, sports have always been first about the throws, hits, catches, blocks, tackles and shots, and not so much about what the athlete had for dinner and with whom. For me, Woods — with his passion for performance, mastery of mind and will to win — was the ideal athlete to cover. His quotations might have been boring, but the shots rarely were.

In 1996, while on his way to a third consecutive U.S. Amateur crown, Woods turned to John Strege, then the golf writer for The Orange County Register, Woods’ hometown newspaper, and to me, and said, “Watch this.”

What he was about to do was hit a ridiculously difficult pitch from a downhill, sidehill lie to a close-cut hole on an elevated green some 10 yards distant. We watched him hit the shot to three feet and make the par-saver. Since then, on every continent, inside the sanctuary of the ropes, Woods has hit hundreds of shots that fairly screamed, “watch this.”

Those are among strokes of genius that once framed his life, a life roped off and kept as guarded as his yacht, Privacy. His secrets no longer private, Woods will see whether sanctuary still exists inside the yellow gallery ropes. Everyone will be watching. — Larry Dorman

Golf is hard, life is harder

We stood silently in the sun on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean until Woods turned and said: “How about this? This is the life.”

One could have said the same about nearly all of Woods’ life. We were together a little more than a year ago, and Woods, the world’s greatest golfer, was the attraction at the Trump National Golf Club south of Los Angeles. About 40 everyday golfers, winners in a sweepstakes sponsored by Nike and Golf Digest, had the chance to play one hole with Woods, who later conducted an hour-long clinic, then answered questions for 90 minutes. Invited to report on the event, I also played a hole with Woods, listened to the lessons at the clinic and took notes during the Q-and-A session.

Even before the events of the last month capsised Woods’ life and image, my strongest recollection of the day was how frequently he talked about his father, his mother and his two children. Playful and teasing on the tee box, he said his father, Earl, built his mental stamina with merciless gamesmanship and distracting tactics whenever they played. During the clinic, many of his golf tips began with Woods saying, “My father always said ...” He explained, for example, that when he was six, Earl told him he could swing as hard as he wanted as long as he finished his swing in balance.

“As my pop said, ‘You can’t tell a little kid to swing at 75 per cent, but you can tell him that if he’s falling over, he’s swinging too hard’,” Woods said. “Adults could use the same advice.”

A little while later, Woods discussed the understated role of his mother, Kultida, who not only drove him to practice nearly every weekday, but also drove him all across California for weekend competitions. At those events, she walked the course with him, offering encouragement and, often, motivational counselling.

In the question-and-answer period, Woods talked about his daughter, Sam, and the way she made him see his life as having permanence beyond golf. Whatever the situation, it seemed that the touchstones of Tiger Woods’ life were family-related as he continually referred to pivotal life lessons learned at home.

The Tiger Woods I saw that afternoon outside Los Angeles was more at ease than I had ever seen him in a competitive environment, and he seemed sincere. I will always believe the tributes to his parents were genuine. The funny stories he told about his daughter sounded like the awed and affectionate banter of any new father. Maybe that was the real Tiger Woods within this context: Tiger Woods was fooling himself. — Bill Pennington

(Bylines are at the end of individual essays.)

— © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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