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Tida In Thailand

To understand the essence of Tiger, you have to know his mother

Tida In Thailand

Tida Woods, a native of Thailand, at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
WEB EXTRA: Watch a slideshow of Tida's trip to Thailand narrated by Senior Staff Photographer Dom Furore.

May 2009

Too obvious. In Hollywood-speak, too on the nose: Tiger Woods' mother cuddling a live tiger.

Except this wasn't some cub. This was a 550-pound adult male tiger at Thailand's Tiger Temple, out on an alarmingly exposed area at the bottom of a rocky canyon with only a frail Buddhist monk in a flimsy orange robe holding a stick as her guardian. By most accounts, the monastery does an admirable job of "imprinting" tigers to be comfortable with human contact, and thousands from around the world visit every year without reported incidents. This tiger, along with about a dozen others within a 50-foot radius monitored by other monks, was deep into his mid-afternoon nap. Still, the words "Siegfried & Roy" kept coming to mind.

But Kultida Woods' bearing as she approached the tiger reminded me of my main impression the first time I ever saw her son, then 14, address a golf ball: utter poise, and an inner smile. Without hesitation, she sidled up to the beast, kneeled down and stroked its back. After a few moments, she shifted herself toward his face with what Cesar Millan of "Dog Whisperer" fame would call "good energy." Lowering into a sitting position, she scooted forward and, yes, lifted the tiger's head into her lap. And as time stopped for her traveling companions, she happily kept it there for more than a minute.

"Tida" is an animal lover who indulges four big dogs at her home in Southern California, and as a native Thai, the tiger holds an exalted station with her.

Tiger

At the tiger temple run by Buddhist monks.

"I wasn't worried. I knew he trusted me," she says, adding, "Oh, his coat was so soft, and his head was so heavy." But noticing that her observers still seemed stunned, she decided to snap them out of it. "Hey!" she said. "Like mother, like son, honey," her throaty laugh celebrating the association she lives for.

Such was the verve Tida, 64, displayed during a week-long tour during the most recent visit to her home country. She moved easily from philanthropist to guide to entertainer, always remaining the trail boss. She has gone back more than a dozen times since first leaving for America in 1968. Though she says, "I live in U.S. 40 years now, in Thailand for only 25. In that way, I'm more American than Thai," Thailand is still her original home and the place she feels most totally herself. The stoic figure behind dark glasses and under a big visor that she has presented to the world while following her son on the golf course might have revealed few similarities with her offspring beyond their broad smiles, but in Thailand it's easier to see the Tida in Tiger.

It was a trip in which communal interaction came easily. Long journeys in a well-appointed hired van and shared meals led to a lively exchange of impressions and observations on the fascinating mix of old and new, order and chaos, that is Thai culture. The group stayed at a modern hotel on the periphery of Bangkok, and after breakfasts featuring exotic Thai fruits and juices, each day trip began with an excruciatingly slow crawl through what is widely regarded as the worst urban traffic in the world.

"Amazing Thailand!" our driver (nicknamed "Bad Boy" by Tida for his all-black outfits and mischievous expression) would sing out while waiting half an hour to cross an intersection impossibly jammed with all manner of vehicles, bicycles and animal-drawn carts, drawing laughter with a sarcastic play on one of the country's tourism slogans. Similarly, expatriates have an all-purpose acronym -- "T.I.T." ("This Is Thailand") -- for all the curveballs the culture throws out.

"In Thailand, you make joke, or go crazy," explains Pong Punsawad, Tida's 49-year-old nephew, who took a week off from his two small businesses -- a cleaning service and wholesale jewelry -- to ride shotgun the entire trip, tirelessly taking care of all group logistics and keeping his aunt supplied with her favorite green-tea drink and Thai throat lozenges.

Amid the teeming streets of Bangkok, struggle seems a given. But the various vendors, laborers and messengers, all making a small fraction of the average salary in the United States, collectively carry themselves with a buoyancy that has earned the country the nickname Land of Smiles.

Thailand has more than its share of problems, including chronic political corruption and regional rebellions, but Tida is proud of her people.

"Thais accept everybody, every religion, every custom," she says. "Doesn't matter if you are Buddhist or Catholic or Chinese, whatever, we celebrate every damn holiday." And when she adds, in a more serious tone, "There's no color in Thailand, not like U.S.," she's alluding to the rock that came through her kitchen window in 1974, a few days after she and Earl Woods moved into a previously all-white neighborhood in Cypress, Calif.

Thais are also known for their toughness, a reputation earned by an ancestral history of defending against invaders -- Thailand is the only country in southeast Asia never to be colonized by a European country -- and by the national sport of kickboxing, in which the fighters are trained to expend incredible energy while impassively absorbing pain.

"Yeah," says Tida, barely 5 feet, winking. "Asian is small but dangerous, honey."

At each stop, Tida invariably dispenses some homespun philosophy. At Bangkok's impossibly ornate Grand Palace in the central city, she makes a prayer offering to the statue of the Hermit Doctor.

"I ask him to cure my cough," she says, referring to a worsening nasal and throat condition that can trigger long and often exhausting coughing. "Hey, you got to believe in something, honey. I have strong belief in Buddhism. Like Tiger believing it will go into the hole, and then it does."

At the National Museum a few blocks away, she muses on her country's history, particularly her favorite of Thailand's nine kings, Rama V, who is often compared to Lincoln because he did much to end the society's dependence on indentured servitude.

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