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Father and Tiger

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, May 5, 2006

I found myself unexpectedly moved by the death of Earl Woods, who succumbed to prostate cancer Wednesday at 74 -- unexpectedly, since I never met the man. I knew him only through what the public has been able to see of his relationship with his son, Tiger, arguably the most famous and accomplished athlete in the world. Eventually I realized the reason I feel such a sense of loss is that I'll never get to witness that remarkable relationship again.

Earl Woods did much more than raise a supremely talented golfer. In an age when it's rare to read a sentence with the words "African American" and "father" that doesn't also include "absent" or some other pejorative, Earl and Tiger Woods were the world's most visible, and inspiring, counterexample. "He was the person I looked up to more than anyone," Tiger Woods said following his father's death, and even the world's biggest cynic had to know he meant every word.

To me, the two defining aspects of Tiger Woods's career have been his supernatural ability to make a golf ball do impossible things and his relationship with his father. Two moments stand out: The Sunday afternoon in 1997 when Tiger became the first black man ever to win the Masters and cried like a little boy in the arms of his father, who was there against doctor's orders after almost dying in heart surgery. And the Sunday afternoon in 2005 when Tiger won his fourth Masters and cried again, because Earl Woods, for the first time, had been too sick to come to the course and root him on.

This spring, as it became clear that Earl was in his final days, Tiger told interviewers he hoped to play well so his bedridden father would at least get to see him on television. When his putting failed him in the Masters, he said he was sure his father would be able to diagnose what he was doing wrong. The two men said they talked by telephone virtually every day. Tiger and his mother, Kultida, were at Earl's bedside shortly before he died.

Earl Dennison Woods was born March 5, 1932, in Manhattan, Kan. He played baseball at Kansas State University -- the first African American player in the Big Eight Conference, according to Tiger Woods's Web site. He served two tours of duty as a Green Beret in Vietnam and, after retiring from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, moved to Orange County, Calif., to work for McDonnell Douglas.

He bristled when people tried to compare him with pushy sports parents who set out to gratify their own egos -- or fill their own bank accounts -- by forcing their children to become champions. "My purpose in raising Tiger was not to raise a golfer. I wanted to raise a good person," he told Golf Digest magazine in 2001. By all accounts, that's true. He made Tiger always put homework ahead of golf and gave him every opportunity to give up the sport. But Earl Woods's son was a prodigy, and trying to keep him away from his golf clubs was like trying to keep Mozart away from his piano.

Woods felt he had a duty to cultivate his son's talent. He used psychological techniques to forge Tiger into a tough, steely competitor -- he would jangle his keys, for example, just as Tiger was about to hit a shot. But they stayed out on the course only as long as Tiger wanted to be there. His son became rich enough to buy him a mansion, but until his death Earl Woods still lived in the modest home in Orange County where Tiger grew up.

His health problems were legion -- heart disease, diabetes, prostate cancer that was initially diagnosed and treated in 1998. After the cancer returned in 2004, it became clear that he was entering his final chapter.

Father and son used to do a trick at the golf clinics they put on for kids: Earl would stand in front of Tiger and come progressively closer as Tiger hit golf balls over his head, until finally Earl was within just a few feet -- at which point Tiger would hit a shot that went almost straight up and landed on his father's head. "We don't do that one anymore," Earl told Golf Digest. Was it Tiger who had lost his nerve for the trick, or Earl? "Hell, Tiger's not the one in any danger."

"He was my best friend," Tiger Woods said Wednesday, and I can't think of a more touching epitaph for a father from a son.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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