Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Teeing Off

Tiger's Greatest Victory May be Off the Course

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 3:45 PM

Several months before work had been completed on the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Cal., two years ago, a group of high school students went on an afternoon field trip to take a tour of the new 35,000-square foot building, accompanied by none other than Tiger Woods. A young man named Jose decided to come along that day, mostly because he'd heard there was going to be free pizza, and he wanted a piece of that pie.

Woods sidled up to Jose during the tour, and before long, the two of them were engaged in an animated conversation. Jose's teachers were amazed, if only because he rarely spoke in class. Some of them actually considered him a very much at-risk student who could just as easily drop out and become a gang-banger as he could continue to stay in school.

"Tiger and I were walking with him, and I asked him to tell Tiger what he was interested in," said Dr. Kathy Bihr, a long-time educator and executive director of the Learning Center. "He said 'architecture' and he was really interested in how they were putting it all together.

"They kept talking, and we eventually enrolled Jose in a pilot program for rocket science. At one point, he built a rocket himself and launched it out on the driving range. He told us that through the class, he finally could understand some of the principles of physics. His vocabulary and his enthusiasm for learning showed us he was a bright kid, but also someone who was in danger of falling through the cracks, the kind of kid we're trying to reach."

Jose was being raised by a single mother and was helping support his family by working two different jobs after school and on weekends, in addition to going to school. After the pilot program at the learning center ended, Bihr decided to hire Jose to work on the center's driving range "just to keep track of him." In the first semester of his senior year of high school last fall, Jose took nine classes and also went to night school during the year to catch up to his classmates in order to graduate on time.

This fall, he'll attend a local community college and participate in a science and engineering program at the California State University at Fullerton. His ultimate goal includes the possibility of applying for admission to the Air Force Academy, and Bihr has little doubt that he'll have a chance to get there some day. He still works at the learning center, and easily qualifies one of the first of what Bihr believes will be countless more learning center success stories over the years.

"All he needed was that little push, and a little direction so that he could believe in himself," she said. "He now refers to us as his second family, and we're very proud of him."

Woods is also terribly proud of the high-tech $25 million learning center complex on 14 acres in Anaheim donated by Orange County, and plans to open another one in the Washington area in the next few years. The proceeds from last week's inaugural AT&T National tournament at Congressional, about $1 million this year, are slated to go to Woods foundation, which operates the learning center.

The California center was dedicated in February, 2006, with former President Bill Clinton and Maria Shriver on hand to help celebrate the opening. It's set up to serve as many as 10,000 youngsters a year in a wide variety of programs designed to supplement their class work as well as to help them with career development.

There are seven classrooms in the solar-heated and cooled building on Tiger Woods Way, and a driving range out back. But golf is only considered a "recreational option" according to the center's informational brochure; mostly it's an occasional diversion for most of the youngsters who flow through the building all day. They can learn the game from expert instructors, and earn playing privileges at several nearby courses, but developing serious scholars clearly is a far more important mission than producing world-class golfers.

The classrooms, always manned by veteran educators and specialists in each discipline, are set up to teach a wide variety of subjects, including creative writing, robotics, engineering, universal science and forensic science. There's also a vast computer lab that is constantly in use for individual projects, and the center is open through the summer with a number of camps and programs, almost always free of charge.

Woods and his late father, Earl, had always been vocal advocates of the importance of education, and the center was an outgrowth of that commitment. Woods said the idea began to crystallize in his mind the week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the long drive home from a World Golf Championship event in St. Louis.

"I did a lot of reflecting," he said the day the center was dedicated. "A month or so later, it hit me. Build a learning center. This is bigger than anything I've ever done on a golf course."

Woods initially contributed $5 million of his own money, and his Tiger Woods Foundation lined up 25 founding corporate sponsor partners, including Nike, Target and even Augusta National. Funds from Woods' Target World Challenge have also funneled directly to the center. The California center is appropriately located on Tiger Woods Way, next door to the Dad Miller Golf Course, a municipal venue where Woods played many of his high school matches growing up in nearby Cypress, Cal.

"We're focused on providing career and college exploration for junior high and high school kids," Bihr said. "It's all about providing an educational environment but also about building kids' confidence and self-confidence so they can be anything they want to be. Our success is measured by their performance in school, their attitudinal changes and seeing how many of them want to come back.

"We've already had lots of stories of students who have really been motivated by being here and doing a complete 360. We've had kids close to dropping out of high school and instead, now they're graduating and going on to college. Tiger's vision was to provide a safe place and create opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have. I think we're doing that."

Indeed, just ask Jose.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company