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Fathers and Sons
After the round that convinced him he was ready, a 66 in the 1996 British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, Tiger Woods was encircled by a small war party of reporters, who were unaware that his amateur career was winding down, that he would be a pro the next time he appeared in a major championship and that he would win it by twelve strokes.
"Have you played much links golf?" inquired one of the reserved Brits.
With a practiced smile and careful eyes, Woods replied, "More than most twenty-year-olds."
Had he been to Blackpool yet? I asked when the golf talk slowed. Had he seen the fabulous roller coaster?
"It reminds me a lot of the Viper," Tiger said authoritatively, "the one outside Vegas." Now the smile was easier, the eyes younger.
He was an aficionado of roller coasters. He was a kid after all.
Golf is a father's game. If sideline TV cameras zoomed in on golfers the way they do football players, hardly any of the pros would say, "Hi, Mom." While the bond between Tiger and Earl may seem to be unique, it is in fact typical.
The real "Big Three" of professional golf were Deacon Palmer, Harry Player, and Charlie Nicklaus, literally the patriarchs of the PGA Tour.
"Deac" Palmer was a western Pennsylvania teaching pro and tractor-driving greens superintendent who brought up a boy with an uncommonly common touch. Arnold called him "Pap" or "sir." Their house abutted one of the tee boxes at Latrobe Country Club. On ladies' days, Arnie would lean against a backyard tree fingering the cap pistol in his holster and waiting for the grande dames to pass by. He was available to hit their drives over the hazard for a nickel. "Some of them," he said, "were slow to pay."
Being the son of an employee, Arnold was expected to make himself invisible on the golf course. His favorite day as a boy may have been the day Pap ferociously took his side against one of the aristocratic members. Arnie owns the course now.
Harry Player"Whiskey" to his friendswas a South African gold miner with a pet rat. "Down in the hole," Gary said, "he'd break off bits of his sandwich and feed it to the rat. That rat knew when the cave-ins were coming. When I began to win golf tournaments, my dad would put his arms around me and just cry."
To give you an idea of what a fractious spectator Charlie Nicklaus could be in Jack's galleries, Ohio State's volcanic football coach, Woody Hayes, sometimes tagged along to keep Charlie calm.
So many of the great golfers came with fathers that the ones who came alone felt alone. "I'd probably be sentimental about my father, too," Lee Trevino said jauntily, "if I knew who he was." Trevino's dad left in a hurry. But Lee knew who his grandfather was. He was a grave digger who could laugh.
Earl Woods' father was a stonemason named Miles who loved the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team and, because he lived in a military town and had four daughters, hated the army. Earl turned down a contract with the Monarchs and became a career soldier.
"Blacks do not write the history," Miles told Earl, who helped his father keep the scoreboard when the Negro Leagues came to town. "Whites write the history, especially in the United States."
But Earl's mother, Maude Ellen Carter, had something to say, too. "Don't judge people," she told her children. "We already have a Judge upstairs, and He's pretty good at it. If you lose your temper, you haven't a chance. Find a method of adjusting, a way to keep your pride and dignity. Talk about it to each other and laugh about it and at it. Prejudice isn't only stupid, you know. It can also be pretty funny sometimes."
Earl said, "That really helped."
He grew up a Cookie League catcher in Manhattan, Kansas, in the shadow of both Kansas State University and Fort Riley. "Hot, sunshiny days on the baseball field," Earl said. "That was my childhood."
Miles died when Earl was eleven, Maude when he was thirteen. The oldest sister, schoolteacher Hattie Belle, assumed command over everyone in the family except Earl, who took charge of himself. "From thirteen on," he said, "I've made every decision on my own."
He went to K-State on an ROTC and baseball scholarship. "I was the only black on the team, the only black in the conference. On road trips, I'd stay in the car and my teammates would bring me out sandwiches. I stayed in the black hotels. I stayed in private homes. It was a lonely experience."
The day before he entered the army, Woods married a girl from a small town nearby. "That was a big mistake," he said. "We were too young, too immature. But like most twenty-one, twenty-two-year-olds, you think you know it all. In retrospect, I realize I was being tested, prepared, for Tiger. My first wife and I had three children: two boys and a girl. Naturally, I was gone a lot. But they helped teach me the things I would need to know to raise Tiger. On the second go-round, Tiger got all of my time. I know people cringe when they hear me refer to my first family as 'my practice family,' but my kids know what I mean and they know I love them."
In the army, Woods learned about the subtler shades of racism.
"People wonder why I tried for the Green Berets. Here I am thirty-five and everyone else is nineteen and twenty. What's a guy seven years from retirement doing heading off to jump school? Well, I guess I was just hungry to be treated at face value. In the Green Berets, you're not a regular officer or a reserve officer. You're an officer. You're allowed to compete fairly and you earn whatever you get. Also, looking back, it provided a few more things I would need for Tiger."
A father who lives for his son is a sure signpost to golf, a harder place to get to than Vietnam.
To find Tiger, you have to look as far back as Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, and maybe even Old Tom Morris, and as far forward as Charles Howell III, Adam Scott, and a building wave of long-hitting young applicants auditioning to be Tiger's hyphenated other (as in Dempsey-Tunney, Graziano-Zale, or Palmer-Nicklaus). If you think of Woods as Palmer, consider that his Nicklaus right now is seventeen and his Tom Watson is seven.
"He's twelve," Tiger said of the player to be named later. I don't know why Tiger said twelve, but he said it unequivocally. "I have to give myself a reason to work so hard. He's out there somewhere. He's twelve."
Tiger isn't easy to find. Golf's beat reporters regard his regular interview sessions as the most boring and least informative in the game. Perversely, some writers have come to admire how pleasantly and gracefully Tiger says nothing. But try sidling up to him a minute or two at a time, hitting and running over a substantial length of ground, and you might be surprised at how much you'll get out of him. He might be, too.
On Tiger's first day as a pro golfer, Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion, interviewed him for ABC.
"What would be a successful week here in Milwaukee?" Strange asked.
"If I can play four solid rounds," Tiger said. "And a victory would be awfully nice, too."
"A victory," Strange repeated. "Do you think, um . . . to me that comes off as, uh, a little cocky or brash. Especially talking to, you know, the other guys who have been out here for years and years and years. And, you know, certainly an incredible amateur recordbut what do you say to those guys when you come out here? You know what I'm sayingyou come out here, your first pro tournament, and you say, 'I can win'?"
"I understand," Woods said calmly. "But I've always figured, why go to a tournament if you're not going there to try to win? There's really no point even going. That's the attitude I've had my entire life. That's the attitude I'll always have. As I would explain to my dad, second sucks, and third is worse. That's just a belief I have."
"But on tour that's not too bad. . . ."
"That's not too bad," Tiger agreed. "But I want to win. That's my nature."
Laughing, Strange said, "You'll learn."
The Greater Milwaukee Open was a relatively gentle way to ease into the profession. Of the PGA Tour's thirty leading money winners, only four had room on their schedules for Milwaukee, and one of the four, Steve Stricker, lived in Wisconsin. Another, Scott Hoch, was the defending champion.
To fill out the field, limbo had to be emptied. Rik Massengale, Mike Donald, Bill Kratzert, Jack Renner, Robert Wrenn, Andy Bean, Bob Gilder, Leonard Thompson, Bruce Fleisher, Gary Hallberg, and Mac O'Grady were among the summoned spirits with faintly familiar names teeing it up in what amounted to the Tiger Woods Open. At the practice range, Tiger was flanked by Fleisher on the right and Hallberg on the left while O'Grady looked on from behind.
Twenty-eight years earlier, Fleisher had been the U.S. Amateur champion with the big dreams. However, in 408 tries, he won exactly one PGA Tour event, and that one, the New England Classic, on the seventh extra hole of sudden death. In Milwaukee, Fleisher had no idea that two years hence, when he turned fifty, he would win his first two senior tournaments right out of the box, roll up fourteen titles in three seasons, amass more than $7 million in winnings, and damn near chloroform the Senior Tour.
Hallberg, college golf's original four-time All-American, was sporting the soft brown fedora that was going to be his trademark. "When you're a young player," he said, gazing at Tiger, "you win everything. You're always winning. You're never not sure of yourself. When I was young, I honestly thought I was the best golfer in the world." Another Hallberg first was of particular interest to Woods. Gary was the first man to duck the dreaded qualifying-school tournament (where twelve hundred applicants scramble for thirty-five jobs) by parlaying a few end-of-the-year invitations into an exempt position on the money list. From his showing in just nine events in 1980, he was named the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year.
"The only thing that can hurt Tiger," Hallberg said, "is when those few bad bounces come along and things don't go the way they're supposed to. You begin to lose your confidence then. Maybe you screw around with your swing or change the way you've always putted. That's when the vicious cycle really starts. I began asking every Tom, Dick, and Harry to look at my swing. Every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Gladys. At one point, I turned to the gallery and said, 'Excuse me, is there anybody here who has never played golf?' A lady put up her hand. 'Would you mind,' I asked her, 'having a look at my swing?' "
Here was the new world Tiger had come to conquer.
Pulling on his glove but forgetting to hit balls, O'Grady folded his arms and stroked his chin. Mac wasn't wearing a monocle but squinted as though he were. He first saw Woods when Tiger was sixteen, and the diagnosis hadn't changed in four years. Feigning a Viennese accent, Mac said, "He seems to project a certain aura of punc-tu-a-ted ar-ro-gance."
O'Grady's real name is McGleno, Phillip McGleno. He changed it shortly after leaving home at fifteen, as a reprisal against his father for remarrying just two weeks after Mac's mother died from a cerebral hemorrhage. And, speaking of the qualifying school, he failed it sixteen times. But when O'Grady finally passed, he celebrated by winning the Greater Hartford Open and the Tournament of Champions.
Mac worked the chorus line like a supervising foreman, tightening a grip here or tuning a takeaway there. His attentions were most welcomed by the workaday players hitting balls. Tiger brought his own coach, Butch Harmon. Laying down golf clubs at Tiger's feet, Harmon was double-checking his man's alignment. Tommy Armour III (thirty-seven years old, fifteen seasons, one victory), who was baptized a golf pro, said, "Just about all of the famous swing doctors have stolen something or other from Mac."
What does O'Grady know that they don't?
"They don't know that if your chin goes up or your chin goes down," Mac said, "it affects the endolymphatic fluid in the inner ear. The eyes, through the vestibular-ocular reflex, work with the neurosystems of the hands. And the antigravity proprioceptors of the neck respond to movements of the endolymphatic fluids. The direction, right or left, in which you tilt your ear toward your shoulder at address affects both the vestibular-ocular reflex and the optic-kinetic reflex. They don't know that."
I met O'Grady in Monterey at the AT&T Pro-Am. We practiced together at Spyglass Hill. He spent our round (swinging both right-handed and left-handed, hitting the ball professionally either way) relating for me, scene by scene, the Robert De Niro movie Awakenings. By the end of Mac's account, he was in tears. "They all go back to sleep," he whispered.
Nodding toward Tiger, I suggested to Mac, "This kid probably doesn't cry that much on the golf course."
"No, or off it, either," he agreed.
Standing nearby, looking like Wilford Brimley eating a chinchilla, was Mike Cowan, the caddie known (for his snowy mustache) as Fluff. He was on loan to Tiger from Peter Jacobsen, who had an injured shoulder. But before long, Fluff would get to thinking that eighteen years with Jake were plenty.
Fluff and Jacobsen won some nice tournaments, like the Colonial and the Bob Hope, and made some lasting memories.
Paired with Jack Nicklaus in a final round at Jack's Memorial Tournament outside Columbus, Ohio, Jacobsen hit a spinning bunker shot at the fourteenth hole that left him an unnerving four-footer for par. He marked his ball to wait for Nicklaus, who had a fifteen-foot putt for a fifth straight birdie.
"Peter, do you want to go ahead and putt out?" Nicklaus asked nonchalantly.
"Why, Jack?" Jacobsen said. "You're away."
"Because when I make this putt," Nicklaus said, "the people here are going to go crazy."
"Jack, you go ahead," Jacobsen said after he came to. "I have to learn to deal with these types of situations."
Naturally, Nicklaus made the putt; sure enough, when it was Jacobsen's turn, so much of greater Columbus was still reverberating that he couldn't hear the click of his putter on the ball. For a horrible second he thought he had whiffed it. But it went in.