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Golf Digest Interview

Earl Woods

He devoted himself to training Tiger, and he sure likes what he sees

'I never treated Tiger like a kid. I treated Tiger as an equal.'

Photo: Dom Furore

November 2001

The man had lived quite a life even before his son Tiger came along in 1975. As the first black scholarship baseball player in the old Big 12 Conference, Earl Woods developed into a catcher with the skills to play professionally. He chose instead to complete his education at Kansas State and enter the military service, which included two tours in Vietnam. It was there that he met Vuong Dang (Tiger) Phong, the South Vietnamese Army colonel who was a close friend and an inspiration for the son who would grow up to become the most influential athlete in the world.

Tiger Woods' birth signaled the start of more than one new life, and Earl and Tida Woods made the most of it, organizing their lives around their son and the game he loved. By the time Tiger started playing in national amateur events, his nerves had been hardened by psychological techniques his father had learned as part of training as a prisoner-of-war interrogator.

Tiger has taken a big step toward his dream of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional major championships, and now that he has taken command of his career, his father has more time to be a fan. Earl Woods, 69, joins his son at a handful of tournaments (mostly the majors and tour events with Tiger Woods Foundation clinics scheduled nearby), more often watching the action on television from the couch at his hotel — a concession to diabetes and circulation problems in his legs.

During a July trip to the Western Open outside Chicago, Earl watched golf and Wimbledon tennis on television while talking with Golf Digest Associate Editor Matthew Rudy. Earl, known for his candor, tackled subjects as disparate as overzealous sports parents, the "bum rap" he says Fuzzy Zoeller got for comments about Tiger at the Masters in 1997, "Tiger-proofing" golf courses, the horrors of war, and how he taught the world's most famous golfer how to hold his liquor.

Golf Digest: There's a theory that if you play Mozart for a newborn child, it will increase the child's IQ. As a jazz fan, did you think that kind of approach might work with Tiger?

Earl Woods: I don't know if that holds true, but the first music Tiger ever heard was jazz. I wanted him to be attuned to the sound, because I think jazz is one of the last creative arts we have, played by superbly talented people. You know, novices can't play jazz, because it's too complicated. Singers of today, popular singers, have untrained voices with limited range, and they have to play the volume up really high to be heard.

So when you get into Tiger's car and hear hip-hop, you make him turn it off?

We went through a point where Tiger had rap music that almost got him kicked out of the house. Neither my wife nor I understand rap. I don't consider it music. I don't hear anybody singing. It's just talking, and I don't understand the pronunciation. But far be it from me to judge.

Just don't play it in my car ...

Don't. My assistant and I go through this all the time. Don't put any of that stuff on my sound system.

But if you had to listen to one contemporary artist, who would it be?

There aren't that many who are that good. Sade. She has a lot of talent. Christina Aguilera. She has a lot of power, and it's untrained, but the talent is so great that you don't need training to be effective.

Let's talk about training Tiger. Are you worried that your success in raising him has created a bunch of parents who push their kids toward unrealistic goals?

Yes. And I tried to head it off. I make it very, very clear [in Training a Tiger] that my purpose in raising Tiger was not to raise a golfer. I wanted to raise a good person. And hopefully I gave specific enough directions that parents won't go overboard and use their child's success to validate their own self-worth.

There will be parents who miss the big picture and say, "But I want my kid to be a star."

The saddest thing in competitive athletics is to see an athlete competing because he or she is required to compete, not because they desire to compete.

Does it bother you that for years people referred to you as a stage-manager father?

Your approach with Tiger never led to an estrangement. How did you avoid that?

I never treated Tiger like a kid. I treated Tiger as an equal. We transcended the parent-child relationship and became best friends a long time ago.

Did he have a standard teenage-rebellious phase?

No, he did not. He went through the same period his father did—he thought he knew it all, just like I thought I did. That's part of growing up. I was one of those typical 21-year-olds who thought he knew everything. I made every decision in my life from age 13 [after the death of his mother; his father died when Earl was 11].

Before that phase, when Tiger was young, did you ever spank him?

Never. I never even admonished him. He totally understood my tone. You know how you can stop a dog on a dead run? It's all in the voice. And this was without fear — he didn't fear me. He just knew when he was supposed to stop.

What was your approach to advising Tiger about the dangers that every kid faces, whether it's drugs, alcohol, sex or any other challenges?

I had a very, very, very simple philosophy about drugs. I said, "Tiger, there are only two people in the world you can trust about drugs, and that's me and your mother. Neither one of us has ever used drugs, neither one of us will ever use drugs, and neither one of us will ever introduce you to drugs. You can come to us openly at any time to discuss drugs. You can't trust anyone else in society." And it worked.

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