His Father's Son
You can learn a lot about Tiger through the last days of Earl Woods
Interview with Earl
I broached the subject gently to Earl's sister Mae. "You must know," I said, "he was something of a womanizer."
"Oh, Lord," she said. "If he had been my husband, I'd have shot him."
And she loved him.
Earl wouldn't have said "womanizer"; he'd have said "player." He thought of himself as a player. From all signs, he wasn't ashamed of it.
It became my habit, at British Opens, to drop by the Woods' rented house one day of the tournament, to watch Tiger on television with Earl. "Squeamish" (Earl's word) at the specter of his parents back under the same roof, Tiger seldom stayed in any of these homes he paid for at a dear premium. He crashed with Mark O'Meara, usually.
At one of the earliest stops, IMG's Bev Norwood and I visited Earl, who introduced us to his cook, a comely young woman.
"Didn't I meet her at the Masters?" I asked after she moved into the next room.
"Yes, she's always with us at the Masters and the British," he said.
"She must be a hell of a cook," I said.
"She sure knows how to keep that potato-chip bowl filled up."
"Earl, is that some kind of sexual metaphor I'm too unsophisticated to understand?"
"No, Stud. Literally. See? It's full."
'TIGER'S MAD AT ME'
Near the end, Tiger and Earl had a falling out: a serious splintering that lasted about a year. Earl didn't say it had to do with a woman. He didn't have to. All he said was, "Tiger's mad at me."
"Are you sure you're not mad at him?" I said.
"Why would I be mad at him?"
"For kicking you to the curb."
"That was the plan all along."
This was a stock answer Earl applied to almost every disappointment.
The issue that split them couldn't have been just a garden-variety dalliance, because Tiger had been aware of those since high school, according to his original sweetheart, Dina Gravell.
"He would just call, crying," she said, "and say, 'My dad is with another woman,' and that would be all he could say, he would be so upset. So, I just tried to be there for him and listen to him."
Earl didn't volunteer any particulars, but Tiger was furious. Tida, of all unlikely peacemakers, did the most to repair the rift between her son and husband. Though she had her own trouble forgiving Earl, she prodded Tiger back to his father.
Once again, underneath Tida's gruffness was that tenderness, so often missed.
"Tiger," Tida said, "you got to forgive your dad, for your own sake. Because he's going to be gone, and you're going to be sorry."
Earl and Tiger reunited in plenty of time. Well, not plenty of time. In time, though. They were back in each other's arms at the end.
Earl made it to Augusta for the 2005 Masters but was too ill to come to the course, even just for the kiss. He had a year and a month to live.
This was Nicklaus' 45th and final Masters, but the melancholia surrounding him had nothing to do with golf. A little more than a month earlier, 17-month-old grandson Jake Walter Nicklaus -- Steve and Krista's boy -- crawled into a hot tub and drowned.
Tiger and O'Meara sought Nicklaus out for a lunch on the Tuesday before the tournament. They talked around the heartache, mostly about fishing. "Mark and Jack reminisced about all these great fly-fishing places they'd been to all around the world," Tiger said. "You know, just shooting the bull. I mostly listened, watching Jack."
At the Champions Dinner, Tiger looked around the gradually emptying room and felt the same sensation of time passing by. Byron Nelson, who was 93, couldn't make the trip this year. "I'll never forget my first Masters dinner," Tiger said. "Just to be looking at the real Byron Nelson and the real Gene Sarazen. I'm over here with Mr. Nelson on my left, Ben Crenshaw on my right, and here we are with dinner knives in our hands demonstrating our grips. Mr. Nelson is telling me how he changed his grip back in 1933. I'm thinking, My dad was just born."
Byron would die in 2006, four months after Earl.
In December 2005, Earl's daughter Royce from his first marriage paused her career as a marketing specialist, taking family leave under California law to move back in with her father. His many maladies were racing each other now, but cancer was out in front. "I had visited Cypress the month before," she said. "Dad was OK then. But in December we got word that he wasn't doing too well. Neither Tiger nor Tida called. That just wasn't them. Although, when Dad had his heart attack , Tida did call us. I have to give her credit for that. But generally, Den, Kevin [sons from Earl's first marriage] and I were excluded. We were nonexistent."
She found her father entirely cogent; Earl was, in most ways, himself. But he had fallen a few times and was burning things with his cigarettes. And, in a boiling house, he was freezing. Mostly he sat in his easy chair in the living room, watching movies. Sometimes they could get him to go to bed.
Of the radiation treatments, he spoke confidently. "Oh, they zapped this" or "They zapped that," he'd tell her. "Don't worry, I'm good."
"Then something would show up in his stomach," Royce said, "and he'd just shrug, 'Oh, they'll zap that, too. I'm fine.' When the doctor stopped at the door to say, 'See you later, Earl,' Dad called out to him, 'Toodle-oo!' He loved his doctor."