Think back four years ago, when Tiger Woods’s only competition as the world’s most dominant athlete was his buddy Roger Federer, the tennis star. Woods’s reputation as a golfer was unparalleled among his peers, the winner of 12 major championships at age 31. His marketability was unsurpassed. Off the course, he and his wife were expecting their first child.
And in March of that year, Woods all but single-handedly saved professional golf in Washington, creating a tournament out of thin air when the area’s PGA Tour event evaporated. Back then, Woods alone had the power to draw AT&T as a corporate sponsor for a new event, one that would benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation. Woods’s charitable arm, in turn, would have a home in the nation’s capital, where it could perhaps construct an East Coast version of the Tiger Woods Learning Center, a spectacular, sprawling $25 million complex in Anaheim, Calif.
“It’s a dream come true for myself,” Woods said at the time.
Since then, Woods’s travails — scandal and divorce personally, injury and slump professionally — make up one of the best-known narratives in sports. His withdrawal from next week’s U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club is indicative of Woods’s journey. At one point, he might have been a good bet to match or surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships at the Bethesda course that is host to his signature tournament, putting the final touch on his athletic legacy while simultaneously deepening his connection to Washington.
Now, though, Woods has appeared just twice in his event here; he will miss what will be the area’s most significant golf tournament in more than a decade; and the AT&T National will be staged this summer, for the second year in a row, outside Philadelphia because Congressional needed a two-year hiatus to redo its greens and then host the Open.
Thus, Woods’s connection to the District lies in a pair of rooms in two charter schools — one in Northeast, the other on Capitol Hill — where small groups of kids zealously pursue a variety of projects in ambitious after-school programs.
“I felt uncomfortable with” a legacy limited to golf, Woods said in an interview last month in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. “There was something more. . . . With golf clinics, you’re in and out. There’s no leave-behind.’”
What, then, will Woods’s “leave-behind” be in Washington?
Monday afternoon in a classroom on the second floor of the Cesar Chavez Charter School for Public Policy’s Parkside campus in Northeast Washington, classes had ended for the day, but eight middle school students worked away feverishly. An egg-drop contest approached, and not all of the apparatuses — laden with balloons, Styrofoam, straws, paper, tape, what have you — were complete yet.
“I like this program because it gets them focused on careers,” said Thomas Hailu, a Howard University graduate who serves as one of five instructors — three full-time, two part-time — at the two District campuses of the Tiger Woods Learning Center. “They can see a connection between what they do here and what they might do for a living.”
Moments later, the kids were down the stairs and into the gym, spreading a plastic sheet on the floor and trying to dodge the half-dozen basketball games clamoring around them. Hailu stood on the balcony above, and dropped — one after the other — three contraptions. The kids waited for the results, captivated.
In October 2001, Woods called Greg McLaughlin, his foundation’s chief executive, with an idea: He wanted “something kids could touch,” a safe place in which underprivileged kids could find engaging after-school programs.
“It was without question the largest moment in the history of the foundation,” McLaughlin said.
In early 2006, the Tiger Woods Learning Center opened in Anaheim, adjacent to the H.G. “Dad” Miller golf course, a municipal on which Woods played his high school matches. At the ceremony that christened the facility, which provides a wide range of after-school and summer-time classes focused in science, technology and communications, Woods was joined by Maria Shriver, then California’s first lady, and former president Bill Clinton.
The plan, the following year, was to explore building something similar in Washington. Woods’s staff held focus groups, trying to gauge the needs of the community. They asked District adults: What comes to mind when you think of opportunities for your kids?
“Across the board, as they went around the room, they were like, ‘It’s hopeless,’ ” said Kathy Bihr, the executive director of the learning center. “It was the most depressing focus group I’d ever been a part of.”
So the challenges in the District were diverse. And in 2008, the economy collapsed. Suddenly, building a new center or taking over a facility all to themselves became implausible. And by late 2009 — more than 21 / 2 years after the announcement of the AT&T National — Woods became embroiled in a publicized sex scandal that damaged his image and led to his divorce.
So last year, the foundation announced a less-ambitious plan: Two small “campuses” in the Chavez schools, with the ability to expand if the model worked.
“It’s hard to raise $25 million,” Woods said. “You can’t raise that much in D.C. — or anywhere in the country, for that matter. . . . This is a model which we can grow and push it, not just in D.C. We’re talking around the country and the world.”
With the first academic year coming to a close, those plans have not yet taken shape. “It’s too early to tell,” Bihr said. The foundation says it has put $1.5 million into the District programs. Expansion, though, waits.
Back in the gym, Hailu, the instructor, joined the kids on the gym floor. One of the students’ contraptions had protected the egg. For the other two, messes — and back to the drawing board.
So where does all of this — Woods’s health, his slump, his personal issues, his withdrawal from the Open — leave his connection to Washington? Ostensibly, he will return to play in the AT&T National next year at Congressional. The club and the foundation have a contract to stage the tournament in Bethesda from 2012 to '14. Following the 2013 event, Congressional’s membership will vote on a three-year option that could keep the tournament at the club from 2015 to ’17.
But like everything with Woods now, those are open-ended questions.
“He has an extremely complex life,” said Sean Foley, his swing coach of 10 months. “I don’t think any of us have any idea of what that’s like. And I think what happens, it takes a lot of energy.”
Woods’s energy, now, must be put into rebuilding his body, and then his career. He said last month that despite what would seem to be a litany of distractions and uncertainties, the fundamentals of his professional life remain the same.
“I just love practicing,” Woods said. “Practicing, for me, is getting ready for a tournament. That part’s fun. It’s fun to go out and challenge myself in that regard. I love the environment of trying to test what I’ve done in practice.”
Four years ago, Tiger Woods seemed to pass nearly every test put before him. Now, with the U.S. Open coming to a city once on the verge of becoming his East Coast base, he’s unable to participate. And four years seems a lifetime ago.