He's best-known as perhaps the finest young golfer in history. But to his parents, it's more important that Tiger Woods is a fine young man. It took love, rules, respect, confidence and trust to get there.
LIKE ANY OTHER UNIQUE PHENOMENON THAT NATURE whips up from time to time just to see if we're paying attention, Tiger Woods is most easily defined by what he is not. Tiger is not a tantrum waiting to happen, not a strung-out soul. Tiger is not the creation of Svengali parents, pushed so hard that the only way he can reclaim his life and his identity is by failing. What Tiger Woods is--the most successful amateur golfer in the history of the sport--and how he got there--through an upbringing aimed at making him the best golfer since 15th-century Scottish shepherds smacked a feather-stuffed ball around the Highlands with their crooks--could have turned him into a head case, if not a court case. At the very least, signing endorsement deals with Nike and Titleist for $60 million over five years might make a kid buy a turbo Porsche. And crash it. The enduring mystery about Tiger Woods is not how he manages to hit 330-yard drives over 100-foot trees to cheat doglegs. It's not how he can 3-wood a 284-yard shot onto a water-guarded green and touch down behind the flagstick. It is, instead, this: how can it be that the worst thing anyone can say about this kid is that he changed his official residence from California (11 percent state income tax) to Florida (0 percent)?
A story about Eldrick (Tiger) Woods is a story about golf, but we're going to dispense with the links part of this pretty quickly. Tiger was the youngest player to win the U.S. Junior Amateur title (at 15) and the first to win three, all of them on the last hole. He was the first player to win three U.S. Amateurs in a row, the last despite trailing by five holes in match play. But those were just warm-ups. The golf prodigy who chucked his amateur status on Aug. 28 at the ripe old age of 20 quickly posted two wins in seven PGA starts and was invited to revive last weekend's made-for-TV Skins Game. His is the most successful professional golf debut since dimples on the ball.
Well, why not? Tiger has been burning up the divots ever since he carded a 48 for 9-holes on a California course. As a 3-year-old. But the very same history that explains his prodigious talents with a club should not, if pop psychologists are right, have produced a kid so gracious that he signs autographs for half an hour after tourney rounds. It should not, if the stereotypes are right, have produced a young man who tossed his hole-in-one ball to a fan last August at the Greater Milwaukee Open and gives golf clinics to inner-city kids who, if they know anything about golf, didn't know that it could be played on courses without miniature windmills. If nothing else, years of racist treatment at golf courses--Tiger is one-eighth Native American, one-eighth African-American, one-quarter white, one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Thai--should have left him bitter.
It's ludicrous to pass final judgment on the character of a 20-year-old, but as far as the world can tell, none of this has happened. Despite being raised with a monotonic intensity more typical of gymnasts or figure skaters, Tiger was also being readied for something else. Earl and Kultida (Tida) Woods have been "training Tiger to take his place in society since he was born," says Earl Woods, a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel who served two tours in Vietnam. "Every move has been calculated to make him the best person he can be." How did his parents pull it off? How, in other words, do you raise a Tiger?
"You have your priorities," says Earl Woods, 64, whose book "Training a Tiger" will be published next Father's Day by HarperCollins. "Your priority is the welfare of the child first. Who he is, and what is going into making him a good person, has priority over making him a good athlete." Dogged by regrets over not spending more time with the three children of his first marriage, Woods recalls of Tiger that "my time was basically his. When he was 2 years old he memorized my work number" at McDonnell Douglas, where Woods procured parts for Delta rockets. "He would call me every day and ask, "Daddy, can I play golf with you today?' Each and every day I would pause so that he would think I was not going to say yes--and then I would agree. He was so excited. "I'll have Mommy take me and I'll meet you at the golf course, Daddy!'" They played at the Navy Golf Course (NGC), a five-minute drive from their one-story tract house in Cypress, a forgettable suburb 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles, as far from the ostentatious wealth of southern California golf meccas as you can get and still see palm trees.
Woods had learned golf, from a book, just two years before his and Tida's only child was born. Tiger started learning at 6 months, from his highchair, watching his father practice swings in the garage. At 10 months, he squirmed down from his chair and took a swing with a sawed-off club--a swing that may turn out to be more historic than Alan Shepard's 6 iron on the moon. Tida has grainy photos of Tiger on a practice green at 11 months. "When he was 18 months old he would go to the driv- ing range" at NGC, Tida says. "And when he was done hitting I would put him back in the stroller and he'd fall asleep." While other toddlers frolicked in sandboxes, Tiger practiced chipping out of sand traps. The little guy's infatuation with the sport came in handy. A sure-fire way to get Tiger to do something was to threaten him with no golf. And once Tiger reached school age, there was no golf practice until homework was done. Says Tida, "He used to tell his friends, "My mother is very strict'." She also made her expectations clear. As a toddler, Tiger would watch John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on TV throwing racquets around the courts. "I'd tell him, "I don't want you to ruin my reputation as a parent'," says Tida. ""I will spank you in a minute if you act like that'."
Yet the Woodses' view of parental authority is less authoritarian than that of parents who consider themselves trendily enlightened. "The cement that holds all of this together is not love, because love is a given," says Earl Woods. "It is respect and trust. Parents figure they don't have to earn diddly from a child. That's not true. Do you think, by right of birth, you are an authoritarian figure from the child's point of view? No! The child did not buy into that situation. He was not consulted. You've got to earn that child's respect and trust just as he's got to earn yours."
They built that trust one moment at a time. When Tiger was a toddler he asked for a tricycle. "Do you want a tricycle or do you need it?" Woods recalls asking him. "Now he has to make a decision, and he'll say, because he's coming from the truth, "I want it.' Finally you say OK, and in the next sentence he changes the subject. Then you know that your son trusts you and that your word is good."
Muffed shot: It may be a cliche that golf is a microcosm of life, but the Woodses made that belief work for them. When Tiger, still a preschooler, would hit a bad shot, he would bang his club on the ground. Woods would ask his son, "Who's responsible for that bad shot? That crow that made noise during your backswing? Your lie? The bag somebody dropped? Whose responsibility was that?" "Mine," Tiger would say. Later, when Woods would ask why Tiger took it out on his club when he muffed a shot, the little boy would answer, "I don't want to, Daddy, it just happens." It would happen repeatedly, and each time Tiger would say, "Daddy, I'm trying very hard." "I'd say, "I know you're trying, just keep trying'," Woods remembers. ""As you grow and mature you can turn this into an asset'." Tiger would give his father progress reports. "Daddy, I wanted to bang my club today but I said no, I'm going to hit the next ball real solid." And that's how he learned to play angry, believes Woods, "all because we allowed him the space and then made him take responsibility for his actions. These are the kinds of things we covered on life, through golf."
When Tiger was 4, he and his father went to a nearby golf tournament. Getting out of the car, Tiger asked if Woods had put the clubs in the trunk. Woods told his son that it was his responsibility to remember such things. "He was trying to keep from crying," Woods remembers. "I said, "I think I'll go putt for a while.' After about five minutes I said, "Tiger, I hope you learned your lesson.' "Yes I did, Daddy.' I got out his clubs, hidden under the back seat, and I've never had to worry about them since."
The young Tiger was obsessed with his scores. Woods would repeatedly encourage the 9-year-old to just enjoy himself and quit worrying about his numbers. "That day changed our relationship," says Woods. "His reply was, "That's how I enjoy and am happy, Daddy, shooting low numbers.' It hit me. I stopped, turned, looked at him and said, "Son, I promise you I'll never be on your case again for that'." Just the opposite. To nurture Tiger's competitive drive without crushing his confidence, Woods would establish custom-made pars for Tiger: the lowest number of strokes to reach the green (assuming perfect shots), plus two putts to get down. On a par 4, for instance, Tiger's "par" might be 6. Otherwise, Tiger would have felt that "he couldn't compete," says Woods. "It'd be totally unrealistic and I'd be a stupid parent."
Pulling back: By the accounts of those who know, the Woodses are anything but. "So far as I know Earl never pushed Tiger to do anything," says John Anselmo, 75, the legendary southern California golf pro who taught Tiger from the age of 10 to 17. Or if they pushed, they clearly did not push him over the edge. John Strege, whose biography of Tiger will be published next spring, goes further: "Everyone thinks Earl is a dominating stage father like Stefano Capriati or Marv Marinovich [father of Todd, the quarterback groomed for stardom by his father, who washed out of the NFL]. But Tiger took to the game. Earl never had to tell him to practice. In fact, his parents had to pull him back a little."
Jay Brunza, a retired captain in the Navy Medical Service Corps, began playing with Earl and Tiger Woods seven years ago. When Tiger was 14, Woods asked Brunza to be his son's sports psychologist, working on relaxation, focusing and anger management. "Tiger was pursuing something from an intrinsic passion for the game, and wasn't forced to live out somebody else's expectations," Brunza concludes. "If he said, "I'm tired of golf, I want to collect stamps,' his parents would say, "Fine, son,' and walk him down to the post office. "As a teen Tiger tried several other sports. He was a natural switch-hitter, loved playing shooting guard, was a wide receiver and a 400-meter runner. But he quit everything because it interfered with his golf.
The rules of the game provided what Earl Woods calls "an infrastructure. Tiger learned at a very early age to live by the rules. There are rules in life. If you don't believe it, break them--you will come into contact with the enforcement element in our society." Tiger got that chance at about 15, when he played a junior tournament in New Orleans. One evening he asked his father for permission to go down to Bourbon Street with the other players. Leaving $20 in Tiger's wallet, Earl told him to have fun and get back by curfew. "Dad, I'll be home by 11," Tiger promised. At 10 minutes before the appointed hour Tiger walked into his father's hotel room, high on excitement over the sights downtown. "Oh, Pop, you can't believe what I saw down there!" he exclaimed. "You can't tell the women from the men." Tiger stuck to Cherry Cokes, but his companions got drunker and drunker. They were disqualified from the tournament.
Reading greens: Tiger did rebel in one very symbolic way: by firing his father. It was during a qualifying round for the U.S. Open in 1993. Tiger didn't feel that he was ready for the Open and didn't want to be there, something his father didn't know. While Tiger fumed, Woods, his caddie, kept right on reading the greens--and doing it so perfectly that Tiger kept sinking putts. "I was frustrating him because I was making him better," says Woods. "I'm sure he was thinking, "If Pop keeps fooling around like this I might make the cut.' So he fired me" after he finished the round. In the parking lot, Woods tore into his son. "I said, "Don't you ever jerk me around like that again. You don't want to be somewhere, you let me know'." Woods never got his job back, though these days his heart condition would make it virtually impossible to caddie. Still, he advises other parents who want to raise a Tiger, "Make yourself vulnerable. Give your kids the space and the authority to critique you."
Tiger calls seeing more minorities in the gallery "really nice" and a sign of where the game "should go and will go." But race is a complicated thing with Tiger, and not only because of his mixed heritage. He grew up hearing of the racism his father encountered in college and the military; he also absorbed the stories of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and black golfers Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes. Woods taught his son to ignore racist treatment; the pair had chances to practice that early and often. For Tiger's childhood was not the colorblind utopia the sports press has made it out to be, NEWSWEEK has learned. When Earl Woods started playing the navy course, some white players would call him "Sergeant Brown"--brown for his skin and sergeant for the highest rank they figured an African-American could attain. Woods never responded. But when a white bartender silenced the men by telling them Woods had retired as a lieutenant colonel, Woods believes they found a way to get back at him. "I had the nerve to have this talented kid," says Woods. "That's how they got to me, through Tiger."
The child felt the sting at 3, when he was banned from NGC's 18-hole course: kids under 10 were not allowed, said club officials. But when a new pro arrived the next year, Woods bet him that if he spotted the boy one stroke per hole, Tiger could beat him. The stakes: playing privileges for Tiger. Tiger won; the pro let him use the course. But when Tiger was 4 he was banned again. Woods, who saw white kids under 10 playing the course, blames "selective enforcement" of course rules.
Tiger played instead at a nearby course in Long Beach, returning to NGC when he was 10. At that age a child could play only with an adult. But "that rule was not applied to anyone other than Tiger," says a family friend. "They were always watching him. They singled him out. The guys in the pro shop were always being asked if he paid for everything." Asked to respond, Paul Moreno, an NGC employee for 30 years and current manager, said, "I can't give out that information. I can't answer any personal questions."
Tiger never talks about the treatment he endured at NGC. "I'd try to bring it up and he'd change the subject," says a longtime friend. "I never could get him to feel sorry for himself. He'd just shrug and say, "That's the way it is'." But the wounds have not scarred over completely. "It's their loss," declares Earl Woods of the NGC. "Tiger won't go near the place anymore." And one of the first ads he made for Nike shines a harsh spotlight on the racism that still infects golf. As the ad noted, there are still courses--Nike counts 23--in this country where the amateur champion and rookie pro phenom is not allowed to play "because of the color of my skin." One of his great-grandparents, after all, was African-American.
When Tiger Woods turns 21 on Dec. 30, he plans to legally change his name from Eldrick. In turning pro, he also dropped out of Stanford University, where he had been studying economics. He had made a promise to his parents that he would complete his college degree, and says he intends to honor that pledge, one day. "You can get your degree now or you can get it 20 years from now," Earl Woods told Tiger. If these are the small yet symbolic acts of a young man carving out an identity separate from his parents', they do not extend to rejecting everything they stood for. One of those principles was, Earl Woods explains, that by helping others one helps oneself, by learning generosity and compassion. Tiger hopes to join the board of the National Minority Golf Foundation, headed by his father and a lawyer friend, "to help kids in the inner city go to college under golf scholarships and mostly to help kids in the inner city play golf," he explains. He also hopes to start his own foundation, next month. It will dispatch a sports psychologist into underprivileged neighborhoods to try to instill in children, through golf, a greater sense of self-worth, and also stage golf clinics for kids with Tiger and Earl.
Quixotic dream? As the pressures of competition mount, Tiger Woods could well abandon his hopes of integrating, or at least embarrassing, America's whites-only country clubs. As he told NEWSWEEK, "Prejudice will always reign. I won't end it." And as the demands on his time increase, changing the lives of poor minority kids by teaching them the difference between a wood and an iron may seem like the quixotic dream of a very young man. Tiger has already shown that he can be as cocky as any 20-year-old multimillionaire living in a gated Orlando, Fla., community. In late September, after four tournaments as a pro, he withdrew from the Buick Challenge, pleading exhaustion, and took a lot of heat for it. PGA star Curtis Strange criticized Tiger for ungratefully spurning an invitation that had been extended to help him get into the groove of the tour as quickly as possible. Tiger compounded the gaffe by failing to show up, the same week, at a dinner where he was to receive the award for best collegiate golfer. Even Arnold Palmer, a friend and mentor, told a reporter, "Tiger should have played. He should have gone to the dinner. You don't make commitments you can't fulfill unless you are on your deathbed, and I don't believe he was."
Still, no one who knows Tiger expects the fame and fortune to corrupt him. If the verdict on the kind of child Earl and Tida Woods raised is wrong, it is unanimously wrong. And that, in the end, may be the true family jewel. The latest promotion from Nike features young kids proudly staring into the camera and saying, "I'm Tiger Woods." It's a proud boast, and something that, more than his perfect swing or stylish Swoosh or even his riches, they can aspire to.
THE WORLD OF sports belongs to the swift, the strong, the agile--in other words, it belongs to the young. But how young? Tiger Woods is a phenom by any measure, but he's not the youngest to win a professional tournament. Before there was Tiger, there was Johnny McDermott, who won the U.S. Open in 1911, when he was 19.
He was positively aged beside Margaret Gestring (above, holding up her Olympic diving suit). At the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, she won the springboard competition at 13 years 9 months, the youngest person ever to win an individual gold medal in any sport. Her record withstood even the great Fu Mingxia, who won the platform-diving gold medal in Barcelona four years ago. Fu was 11 weeks older.
Among baseball fans, there is always debate about which record is the least likely to be broken. Here's the best answer: the one held by Joe Nuxhall (above). In 1944, when he was just 15 years old, Nuxhall signed a $175-a-month contract to pitch for the Cincinnati Reds, the youngest player this century to sign with a major-league club. He had just finished eighth grade. He played for less than a year, then dropped out to finish high school. Eventually he returned to the Reds and played as a professional for 15 more seasons.
On the pro tennis circuit, Andrea Jaegar (above) was, in Elton John's phrase, a candle in the wind. She turned pro at 14, in 1980, and won her first tournament the same year. She kept to her game, hugging the baseline and slugging backhands, finally playing herself into the Wimbledon finals when she was 18. A year later, injured and emotionally spent, she quit. After a respite, she went to work with critically ill children.
No sport has been as dominated by youngsters as women's gymnastics. The sight of tiny girls cavorting across mats under the baleful eye of domineering coaches has set off controversy and debate for years. It's been feverish enough to force the Olympics to raise the minimum age to 16. But last August in Atlanta, in the last hurrah for the barely pubescent, 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu (above)--already the youngest American gymnast champ ever--was the youngest member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. women's team.