From The Archives
In Search of Tiger Phong
How we followed the trail of the war hero who inspired a father's famous son
On the last day of 1975, the day after Eldrick Woods was born, Tiger Woods was born when his father gazed into a maternity glass and saw both the future and the past.
"Don't worry, Woody," Colonel Phong told Earl in a hushed voice, "I've never lost an advisor yet."
"'I'm glad to hear it, Tiger," he whispered back, "but I damn sure don't want to be the first one."
Tiger Phong and Earl Woods were deep in Vietcong country, exactly where, only Phong knew. The two-jeep caravan of the two light colonels from Phan Thiet was a familiar convoy throughout Binh Thuan Province, where Phong was the Deputy Province Chief for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and Woods was more than just his U.S. advisor.
The Americans were pulling out. "I got to go," their commander said. Phong's troops were supposed to take over the fire base, but they were overdue. It was sort of a preview of the coming years.
"That's all right, we can defend it ourselves," Phong asserted.
"What?" Woods said.
"You take this cover, I'll take that. My driver can man the third flank, your driver the fourth."
"Tiger, this is ridiculous."
Phong smiled at his friend. Yes, war is certainly ridiculous.
Before taking his position, Woods retrieved an M-79 grenade-launcher from the jeep and set it down in a row with his M-16 rifle and .45-caliber pistol. For three hours, he sweated.
When the ARVN forces eventually showed up and Colonel Phong finished grinding their captain into a fine dry powder, Woods radioed for a helicopter.
The chopper hadn't flown 50 yards before they were under fire. The VC had been there all along. "Wham, wham, wham, wham, wham!" The rounds shot up through the floor of the helicopter directly between the two colonels. As they twirled out of range, Woods said, "Tiger, you crazy son of a bitch." Colonel Phong just laughed.
Later they had a drink in Earl's quarters, "The Blue Room," their mission central and private retreat. More than one drink. It was Phong who had organized the preposterous paint job -- ceiling included -- that gave the room its identity. It was Woods who nicknamed him "Tiger," an expression of admiration but also irony.
Not all of the South Vietnamese soldiers could be called tigers.
The two were closer than friends, brothers. When they weren't fighting side by side, they were playing tennis or tricks. Woods schooled Phong on the rudiments of jazz; Phong gave Woods philosophy. They laughed a tremendous lot, lest they cry a tremendous lot.
But this was a quiet night. Aretha Franklin was singing on the record player. Phong was retelling his dream of being a schoolteacher someday -- he looked like a schoolteacher already. The thing he wished most for his children was just an absence of helicopters.
Woods was thinking of that afternoon in the artillery field: When the Americans left, the Communists should have stormed. Why didn't they? He should be dead. Why wasn't he? Then, and forever, he told himself over and over, "There has to be a reason."
These events occurred sometime between Aug. 15, 1970 and Aug. 13, 1971, I found out on my own. Earl Woods couldn't narrow it down to a decade, let alone a year. He seemed to have no idea when he was in Vietnam, either the first time or the second, which I found impossible to believe. Nearly everything he said, I found impossible to believe, starting with:
"Giving Tiger seven shots at [winning] a tournament, he's going to win one of them."
It's a quaint recollection now, but you have to remember that on the late-summer day in 1996 when Tiger Woods turned pro -- the day I first en-countered his father in Milwaukee -- everyone was wondering whether Tiger could earn enough prize money in the last seven weeks of the PGA Tour season to avoid qualifying school.
Even more preposterous was Earl's explanation for naming his golden child after Lieut. Col. Nguyen (Tiger) Phong. "I knew, instinctively knew," he insisted, "that my son was going to have fame. Someday, my old friend would see him on television, read about him in a newspaper or a magazine, and say, 'That must be Woody's kid,' and we'd find each other again."
Give me a break. The runaway story of Tiger Woods needed a fresh element, but a missing war hero was a bit much. Frankly, I wondered if there ever was a Colonel Phong.
Everything about Earl Woods was outsized and farfetched. He hadn't been just an Army Colonel; he had been a Green Beret. He claimed to have taken some of his Green Beret training in the Arctic, where the temperature was 40 below zero and the wind was howling at 40 to 50 knots and the tires of the 2½-ton trucks were cracking like walnuts and when he blew his nose icicles came out and all 10 of his fingers were frost-bitten.
He wasn't merely a Vietnam veteran; he was a recipient of the Vietnamese Silver Star. Yet he didn't know when he was in Vietnam. I went to Cypress, Calif., to press the conversation.
"Your second tour, was it before the Tet Offensive?" I asked.
"No, it was after Tet," Woods said, "late '60s, early '70s, I would guess."
I was a Marine of no note, who fought the great war of Quantico, Va., never coming any closer to the Mekong Delta than the mock villages on that sprawling installation, where if you touched anything red you were "dead." But I remember the exact date in 1967 when I was sworn in, and I remember the precise minute in 1968 when I left Quantico with a wrecked knee. How can a man forget when he was in Vietnam?
"Do you know when you were in Thailand?" I asked Woods. (Earl met his second wife, Kultida, in Bangkok. Her Buddhism reeled him back into fatherhood at the age of 42. She required a pregnancy, "and I don't shoot blanks," he said with typical shyness.)