Tiger Woods and Earl Woods in 1997
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?"
reprinted by arrangement of Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2010 by Tom Callahan, 304 pages, $27.
"No, Stud. Literally. See? It's full."
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."
Old father-and-daughter teasing games came back into play. "Royce," he said, "when I get old, I want to be put in a senior home with gorgeous nurses who are all 21 years old." "Yeah, right," she said, "like a 21-year-old nurse would give you the time of day." He started laughing.
But, at a point, he said seriously, "Royce, I'm really glad you're here," and she answered, "I wouldn't be anywhere else."
On their visits, Tiger and Elin brought along a black-and-white puppy, Taz. "Dad got such a kick out of that little dog," Royce said. "He'd say, 'Hasn't anybody even tried to discipline this animal?' I'd hear Tiger and Dad laughing and talking in the bedroom; they were having so much fun. I went in there and sat down off to the side and just listened to them. Tiger gave him a big burst of energy. But that evening Dad said to me, 'Royce, I think I did too much today. Let me take a Tylenol.' This was unusual."
On March 21, the Tuesday before the Players Championship in Florida, Tiger abruptly stopped hitting balls in Ponte Vedra Beach and flew cross-country to Cypress. When Earl looked up and saw his son standing over him, he grumped, "What the hell are you doing here?" Tiger said later, "It was great to hear that."
Back at the tournament, where he played listlessly, Woods spoke again of how "stubborn" his father was and how well he was "hanging in there and fighting, which he always does." But this was a smoke screen. Tiger had hurried home because of reports that Earl wasn't eating, that he was saying goodbye to his caretakers, that, in actuality, he was quitting. "We don't quit," Tiger told him in a pep talk. "Remember? You taught me that."
By April, Royce decided Earl was approaching the end as though on a classified mission. "He was like a POW," she said. "He had trained for this. 'Are you in pain?' I asked him. 'Nope,' he said. Sure. He had cancer, but he wasn't in pain. Mind over matter."
Two nights before May 3, Royce sat on the edge of his bed and asked softly, "Can I rub your back, Dad?"
"Yes," Earl said, correcting her grammar, "you may rub my back."
"Am I ever going to graduate from the school of Earl Woods?"
"I love you, Dad."
"I love you, too."
Royce said Earl would fall into a deep sleep, "and for some reason they didn't want him in a deep, deep sleep. So the nurse would go, 'Earl? Earl? Mr. Woods? Mr. Woods?' And Dad would finally say, 'Yeah, yeah, what is it?' 'Just checking, making sure you're OK.' 'OK, thanks.' So on May 2, I was in the front room, and I heard the nurse going, 'Earl? Earl? Mr. Woods? Earl? Earl?' There was no response. I ran back there in a panic. I jumped on the bed, and now I'm right in Dad's face. 'Dad? Dad?' At this point, I'm hysterical. His eyes were open. Like, looking straight through me. 'Dad?' And all of a sudden he said, 'What?' I'm crying. 'Are you OK, Dad?' 'Yeah, honey, I'm fine.' "
The next day, Earl went on oxygen for the first time. "His kidneys were shutting down," Royce said. Everything was. "The doctor left, Tida left, Tiger left. [That was the last time Tiger saw him.] I was on the computer in the next room, listening to the oxygen machine. I'd go in and check on him. OK, he's all right. A little while later, I went back. Dad was rolled over on his side. I sat behind him and started rubbing his back. He took three weird breaths, and that was it.
"After my father's service in Cypress -- open casket -- I'm walking in and out of rooms, crying, crying, crying, and a couple of times Tiger grabbed me and held me. 'It's OK, it's OK,' he said. I thought at the time it was genuine. But ask me today. I just don't feel, I just don't believe, he's genuine. I think he pretends. With Tiger, you always ask yourself later, 'Was it real?' " Ann, the first wife, mourned, too. "My regret," she said, "is I never got to see him. My kids, they just felt it wasn't a good idea. I wish I had made a real quiet, secretive trip, just rang the doorbell. Behind that pompous wall he put up, he could be normal and natural. He could be very loving. Earl had a heart, a sentimental heart. But he could break your heart, too. He broke mine. I guess he broke Tida's as well. And maybe his own."
As a society, professional golfers are at least as unlikely as their fellow men to marry for life. Ben Crenshaw won his first Masters while Polly was on her divorce cruise and the weight of Texas had been lifted off Ben. After 24 years together, Tom Watson put Linda on the waiver wire to wed Zimbabwean pro Denis Watson's old wife Hilary, who didn't even have to change her driver's license. Because of a deep rut Hal Sutton's fiancees were wearing in the aisle, his tour nickname was Halimony.
In a day as innocent as the expression "ladies' man," Arnold Palmer was a renowned romantic. But it must also be said that Arnold's 44-year marriage to Winifred was loving.
Innocent phrases aside, golf always had its share of libertines. Doug Sanders, in his magenta clothing, wasn't ashamed to say he lost his virginity in a Georgia ditch at the age of 11. Two weeks after turning pro, Sanders married a hometown sweetie; they had a son and separated. Next he wed a performing water skier at Cypress Gardens. They also divorced. He went through a lot of women who sent him mash notes, who said to look for them in the gallery. They'd be wearing a yellow dress. Eventually, he found Scotty. She left, too, but only after 27 years of hard marriage. He missed her. "She was solid," he said.
In the 1990s, a caddie gave back one of the most lucrative bags in the history of golf because he was tired of passing notes to pretty girls in the gallery. He felt like a pimp.
But, all that being said, golf never needed a shower more than it did after Tiger Woods careered off a fire hydrant into a tree, shaking loose a multitude of cocktail waitresses, lingerie models and porn actresses, none of whom accused him of gentleness.
Forgetting morality, Tiger had done the absolute last thing anyone ever expected him to do. He made himself ridiculous.
In the handicapping around Tiger's return in 2010, the smart money was on Arnold Palmer's Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando. The smart money was wrong. By the time that end-of-March event rolled around, Woods had already declared for the Masters April 8.
The morning before Arnie's tournament began, its eventual winner, Ernie Els, was in his Lake Nona home having breakfast. He was recalling the 1996 British Open at Lytham, where Els came second to Tom Lehman and Tiger tied for 22nd, low amateur. That was quietly the start of everything. Ernie and Tiger had a short beer and a long talk.
"The bar in the old locker room," Els said, "is just behind the 18th. If you stand up on one of those benches, you can look out the window and see the green. It's right there. I was sitting alone, disappointed. I had bogeyed 16 and 18. Wrong clubs. Two bunkers. I had to wait for Lehman to finish, to clap for Tom at the ceremony, and was having a beer, kind of blowing off steam.
"Tiger walked up to my table," Els said. "If it had been anyone else, I would have told him to give me some space. But I could see he had something on his mind. You know, in those days, he was a shy guy, and he'd give you your space. He was very respectful. He would never have invaded mine for something that wasn't important. That's what I figured anyway."
So Tiger sat down. "I gave him my whole story, my sob story. But I finally looked straight at him and said, 'What's the matter, Tiger?' He just said, 'I'm thinking about it.' Of course, I knew what that meant. He was thinking of turning pro. I said, 'Why are you thinking so hard?'
" 'I don't know whether I'm ready.'
" 'Mate, I've never seen anybody readier than you are. You still have to learn a lot, but you can probably win right now without knowing too much. Sometimes it's better not to know too much. You have so much talent. Have you spoken to your father?'
" 'Yeah, I've spoken to my father. We've discussed it. But I'm worried about how people are going to look at me. I haven't finished college.' "
Ernie laughed, then and now. " 'Look, I didn't even go to college [not for a lack of offers]. You don't have to worry about that stuff. [Jack Nicklaus didn't finish college.] You've got your whole life ahead of you. If you're ready to go, you've got to go, Tiger. You're ready to make your own mark.' "
("Ernie was very helpful in my decision," Tiger told me a month later after turning pro. When I called Els from Milwaukee to ask if Woods was ready, he said, "That's the dumbest question I've ever been asked. Have you seen him?")
"To me," Ernie continued, "it was one of the most human things about Tiger, that day at Lytham. He was 20. I was a young guy, too, just 26. I guess he wanted confirmation from a guy he was secure with.
"He was such a great kid then," Els said. "I mean, a really great kid. You knew him. A tough little guy, but a shy, nice kid. You could see he had a lot of chip on him because of all of his father's influence. Earl was putting it on him to look the guys in the eye, and obviously he did an unbelievable job. Tiger's always had that killer instinct. My dad was also a tough guy, you know? A transporter [trucker]. You can ask him about the arguments we had. He wanted to run my life, too. I finally said, 'Listen, Dad, don't you ever ------- do that with me. I'll do it my way.' "
When Tiger first moved to Isleworth, Woods and Els got together a few times, for a barbecue or a tennis game.
"I could see people were starting to stick around him, flock around him, and I just said, 'You know what? I'm not going to get in there.' It's not like it was a completely conscious decision on my part or [wife] Liezl's part. We just let it go. If you ask me whether I regret it, a little bit, yes. What started hurting him, what started changing him -- I'm not sure Liezl and I could have made the slightest bit of difference."
In Els' opinion, the first half of Tiger's change was inevitable. "How he changed with people, I could see that happening, and I understood it. He turned inward, away from the world, because he had to. I do the same almost in South Africa. I try my best to be everybody's friend, to accommodate everybody. You can ask Liezl how much it frustrates me. Because, whatever you do, you can never do enough. There's no way. I think that's what started hurting Tiger. He does a lot of foundation stuff, he does a lot of good. But whatever he does, it's never enough." As for the second half of the change, the darker territory, maybe Tiger reached back for something he thought he missed as a boy. "I asked him once," Royce said, " 'Don't you ever want to do a little dirt, Tiger? Be a little bad? Spray graffiti paint all over a wall at school, or something?' 'You know, I probably would,' he told me, 'if I didn't know I was going to be famous someday.' I couldn't believe it."
Even before Tiger's secret life was exposed, the fear of him in the locker room had started to ease. Tiger, not Y. E. Yang, blinked at the 2009 PGA. "The talk in the locker room now," Els said, "is that the two best players in the world [Woods and Mickelson] can't hit a ------- fairway. Guys who actually have no chance to beat Tiger are all of a sudden thinking they can. They're saying to themselves and each other, 'Hell, I hit it better than he does.' Of course they're wrong. But, the point is, they're not as scared of him as they used to be."
Ernie had an opinion about the world-shaking Masters that was coming up in two weeks. "I think he'll have a good Masters," he said. "I think he'll contend. I think so. He's that good. But win it? No."
When asked why not, Ernie said, "There's a guilt." Then he thought for a moment and added, "There's a conscience."
He said, "I know it's the worst cliché of all, but it's true. Golf, just as a game, is an animal that tests your character. It beats you down until you feel you're not a good person anymore." I told Els, "You know, not everybody has a conscience. There are robots out there." Before we knew who Tiger was, he knew who he was. It didn't seem to stop him from hitting splendid golf shots. "I still say," Ernie said, "you can't play your best without self-respect. Obviously Elin married the person she believed he was. If he sincerely wants to become that person, good on him. I'll support him. Absolutely. That's what I've done my whole career, supported him. But, to be honest, I wonder where he's going to put his energy now. Into fitness? More and more fitness? Tiger's going to be a very lonely guy, I think, unfortunately."
In the spring of 2010, Hank Haney didn't believe Woods' travails on the course had very much to do with golf. "I don't know how anybody can look at him," Hank said, "and say the problem is his swing or his swing thoughts or his mechanics. What's changed? ... I'll tell you what's changed: Tiger."
At least for the moment, Hank reckoned, Woods had lost himself, not his game. "Maybe he'll never be the same," he said. "Who knows? But what he's done already puts him on everybody's short list of the greatest athletes in history, doesn't it? The phase of the game in which Tiger really excelled was the mental part. 'Putting to the picture' is pretty cool stuff." When Michael Jordan's father pulled over to the side of a highway to sleep and was murdered for his car, Michael turned momentarily to baseball, James Jordan's favorite sport. Michael was mourning.
"That's a very real phenomenon," Haney said, "and I don't think there's any doubt at all that Tiger had a notion to do something along the same lines. Ken Hitchcock's a friend of mine [the hockey coach who led the Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup in the '90s]. Ken said they see it in hockey all the time. Guys are making $3 million a year, their father dies and they want to go to work in a coal mine. When Earl died, I thought there was a strong possibility Tiger was going to give it all up to go in the service."
As early as 2004, Tiger started jumping out of airplanes at Fort Bragg, where Lt. Col. Woods took his Green Beret training. Earl told Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press, "He probably wants in the recesses of his mind to walk the steps I walked."
That year, the day after finishing in a tie for 22nd at the Masters, Tiger flew to North Carolina in his private jet for four days of special-operations training. In a 400-man formation, he ran four miles, singing cadence, as he said, "at the top of my lungs." Tiger participated in close-quarters combat drills and trained in a vertical wind tunnel with paratroopers. Then he made two tandem jumps with the Golden Knights. Two because, after the first one, he asked jubilantly, "Can I go again?"
To Ferguson, Earl said, "Tiger is an independent individual who plays an independent sport, and he's quite frankly not in the business of people telling him what to do. This will be a new experience for him. Somebody is going to be telling him when to eat, when to sleep, when to go to the bathroom. He'll learn about dedication, service, being a member of an organization and a team. Teamwork. Self hardships. Individual hardships. He'll learn an awful lot about himself. And he better watch out. Because it's going to change him."
"Not all the time, just from time to time, Tiger kept up this training," Haney said. "People don't realize how seriously he took it. He wasn't going to some recreational sky-diving schools. He was hanging out with Navy Seals. He took martial-arts training, self-defense, firearms training, the whole deal. I don't think he could ever quite work it out in his mind how to make it all come together. How he was still going to be Tiger Woods, how he was still going to be a father, how he was still going to be a husband, and yet go out and be a soldier like his dad. But I know that's what Tiger wanted deep down. He wanted to be a Navy Seal. For sure that was on his list. I don't know how close he came. How close is close? But I thought at the time there was a good chance it was going to happen."
In a press gathering at the 2010 Players, I waited for the 9-iron-or-pitching-wedge queries to peter out before I asked Tiger a question that was way off point: "Do you think Earl would be surprised we have a black president?" "No, not at all," he said.
"Really?" (I think he would be flabbergasted.)
"He was hoping that he would see that day," Tiger said. "There's no doubt he was hoping he'd see that day."
"What do you think he'd make of this guy?"
"He'd be very proud."
Surprisingly, considering how Tiger usually avoided all things political, he was the only athlete who participated in the Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in January of 2009. Woods gave a speech that made no reference to Obama, who was sitting directly in front of him. Tiger talked instead about his father, who served two 13-month tours in Vietnam Deciding not to ask my last question in a crowd at the Players, I e-mailed him:
"Tiger, you looked a little startled today. Here's a question from even deeper in left field: How close did you come to joining the military?"
Two days later, he responded. He didn't exactly answer the question, but maybe he didn't know the answer.
"For nearly my entire life," he wrote, "I've wondered what it would be like to be in the military. One of the questions I hear most at my foundation is, what would you be if you weren't a pro golfer? I answer the same way every time. I'd be in Special Ops. Maybe Green Beret like Pop. I know some people that are Army Special Forces, and I'm amazed at what they do. I'm proud to call them my friends."
Basketball star Kobe Bryant came back from an uglier scrape to hear cheers again. In 2010, football quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was hoping to do the same. But neither Bryant nor Roethlisberger had been thought of as extraordinary people, just extraordinary athletes. In that sense, they were never in Tiger's class.
Editorialists tried to rope Woods in with baseball's Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, too, though the difference was obvious. There's a test for the presence of drugs. There's none for an absence of character.
Some said Tiger was just a casualty of the modern media age, no different from Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali, if truth were told then as it was now.
I don't go back to Ruth, but Red Smith did, and I go back to Red. Sitting at his kitchen table, the great old sportswriter spoke of the Babe with more than just affection. Of course Ruth was a man of Herculean appetites, sexual and otherwise. He got on so well with children because he was a child himself. But his teammates loved him.
His clothes were streaked with ink from all the autographs he signed. "I like to make everyone happy," he said. The Babe was melting from cancer ("The termites got me") when the pitcher Waite Hoyt and his wife were leaving Ruth's apartment for the final time. He called after them, "Wait a minute." Painstakingly lifting himself out of his chair, Ruth went into the kitchen, to the refrigerator. He came back carrying a small vase that had an orchid in it. "Here," he said to Mrs. Hoyt. "I never gave you anything."
Does any of that sound like Tiger Woods?
I also go back to Ali, the cruelest of boxers, good at sticking his thumb in Ernie Terrell's eye and his knife into Joe Frazier's back. Muhammad called Joe an "Uncle Tom" for visiting the White House, Ali's first stop after knocking out George Foreman in Zaire.
Ali had a mob of wives and demi-wives, and children by nearly all of them, every one of whom he adored. He admitted in Zaire that he had socked Belinda and shipped her home. As contemptible as that is, fighters think with their hands. And Veronica Porsche was on deck.
And yet, despite all this, it was impossible to be around Ali and not like him. On a starry night, with shadows of hyacinths floating down the Congo River, he tried to tell me the whole fight in a sentence. "Black men scare white men," he said, "more than black men scare black men." That's right. We were afraid of Foreman more than he was.
Though Ali was a touchstone for both racism and the Vietnam War, as shoot-able as anybody in the assassination '60s, he walked unguarded through Times Square and life. Leaving the velvet-roped dining rooms, the private blackjack palaces and the V.I.P. "hostesses" to the coming generations of celebrity athletes (Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Tiger Woods), he went out into the light.
Late after the beating at the fists of Larry Holmes, Ali got a phone call from Joe Bugner, who twice went the distance with Ali.
"Joe, Joe," Ali came on the line to say, "why are you calling me, Joe?"
"Because I wanted to make sure you were OK," Bugner said. "Because I'm worried about you. Because I love you."
Will any of Tiger Woods' opponents call him after he's knocked out? When Tiger Woods loses, will anyone cry?
Tiger doesn't compare to Muhammad Ali or Babe Ruth as an athlete or a man. Hell of a golfer, though.
A few weeks after the Thanksgiving crash, Earl's sister Mae called from Banning, Calif. "Do you have a home address for Elin at Isleworth?" she asked.
"Mae," I said, "that address has been in every newspaper in the country. Yes, I have it. But I don't think she's there. Why do you want it?"
"I want to write the children," she said. "I just want them to know they have an aunt Mae somewhere who loves them."
'I met Earl Woods," Arnold Palmer said, "but I can't say I knew him. You knew him. What was he like?"
"Like me," I said, "full of ----." The great man, just turning 80, leaned back and laughed. "He was complicated," I said, "like his son. Good-hearted at his best, though, once you got inside the shell. It wasn't easy getting inside the shell."
"Well, you know," Palmer said, "you can see that and feel it in Tiger, too. My father was like that."
The second-to-last time I saw Earl was in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where Tiger's season-ending tournament was underway. The scene was a cocktail party at a clubhouse ballroom in the late afternoon. Tida and Tiger were present, in different corners, holding separate courts. Earl was a lost island in the center of the room.
He was wearing a black turtleneck pullover and a diamond-and-gold medallion. He looked like a lounge lizard at Caesars Palace. The garish disk brought to mind a boardwalk claw machine, but Earl said it cost $35,000. On his arm was an obvious rental. Well, it's possible she wasn't a pro, but she wasn't a nun. She wasn't a rookie, either. She was a veteran of at least a couple of wars.
I lifted an eyebrow, and he responded with a wink, "My niece."
The last time I saw him, he was sitting in his easy chair at Cypress, uneasy.
"What's this for again?" he asked.
"Nothing in particular," I said. "I was just in the neighborhood." It was for the obituary.
Not fooled, he said softly, "Don't worry about it, Stud. I'm glad you're here. I'm afraid to go to sleep. Oh my God, I've been petrified. And, you know, that's not me. I sit up and watch movies all night long. If I lie down, it's like I can't breathe. Look at this: I've got a twitch in my finger, too. It's those damned steroids. And my legs, they're like balloons, full of water. I'm developing claustrophobic feelings, too. ... Damned steroids."
His prior position, that he had no fear of death, was now inoperative. In Earl's repertoire of monologues, what he called his "actual-death-not-just-near-death experience" might have been his favorite.
"After that last heart thing," he'd begin, "I was lying in bed in the recovery room. Tiger and my wife were sitting there talking, and I decided I was going to sit up. So I did, and I began to feel pretty good. I felt better and better and better. I was in a tunnel. I saw this light down at the end. I got closer and closer, and the light got brighter and brighter. I was drifting along. I never felt this good my whole life. I couldn't tell I was moving. I just saw the light was getting brighter. All of a sudden, I heard this female voice -- it was the nurse -- saying, 'Are you all right?' And I replied, 'I don't think so.' And she looked at a gauge and said, 'Oh, my God!' The blood pressure was down nearly to zero. I felt kind of woozy. She ran and got something, gave me a shot -- adrenaline, I presume. It scared the hell out of Tiger. Me, all I felt was a momentary pang of regret that I was back in the hospital. That tunnel was so peaceful, just like people describe. Five minutes later, I'm up walking to the bathroom by myself. I've never feared death since."
"I promised Tiger I'd be around until I was 84," he said, a target he would miss by a decade. "That was years ago," he said. "I reiterated it recently. Eighty-four just sounded like the number. I don't want to be a liability. I've had so many illnesses. Nine surgeries. Open-heart, cancer, prostate, drainage under my arm and eye, sinuses, both eyes, cataracts, glaucoma, every damn thing. I've got sleep apnea now, too. Don't write that down, Stud. That's why I'm afraid to go to sleep. I'm afraid I won't wake up."
Next to the easy chair stood a rack of Tiger's putters, ones he used at momentous occasions.
"You should lock those up," I told Earl.
"I like looking at them," he said.
Earl believed in both heaven and hell, reasoning, "There has to be a positive and a negative to everything, for balance. Final judgment. No paroles. I imagine heaven is a very pleasant place -- no need for sleep, I'd envision -- where people aren't just blissfully happy but totally fulfilled. No bickering, no arguments. They're kind to one another. They get along. In heaven, the worst part of growing old is alleviated."
What was the worst part of growing old?
"The realization that if you knew then what you know now, you could have made life better for everybody you ever met, and for yourself, too."
What were the best parts?
"Quiet. Peace. Tranquility. The resources to enjoy oneself. The knowledge to make a few last-minute corrections."
Not that Earl doubted he was going to heaven. He hadn't fallen out of love with himself, and said so in just those words. "I love myself," he said. "I love who I am." Obviously, Earl's est training took. "Man keeps looking for a truth that fits his reality," Werner Erhard preached in Erhard Seminars Training. "Given our reality, truth doesn't fit."
"Right after est," Earl said, "I took a seminar on money. How money affects you, controls you, corrupts your life or doesn't, et cetera. One of the exercises was to take a page and write down what you wanted next week, next month, next year and five years from now. Ten years or so later, I was looking through my dresser and found that paper. I started laughing. I laughed like hell. Because I had attained everything on my list. Sportscar. I had two, including a 300ZX. Ten thousand dollars in the bank, free and clear. Well, I had a lot more than that. This. Check. That. Check. Check, check, check. I had it all, everything I thought I wanted. But nowhere on my list were the things I really wanted, the things that really mattered. No solutions. No cures. Isn't it a bitch? By the time you get what you thought you wanted, it isn't what you really wanted at all."
He asked oddly, "What would you say is the great healer?"
"Time?" I guessed.
"I wish. Oh well, maybe in heaven."
He said, "You want to hear something crazy? I miss golf [not Tiger's, his own]. I'm sure there'll be golf in heaven -- why not? -- but you'll still hit bad shots. Because golf's a game. It's only a game. It isn't life. There's a difference. Damn, that's a revelation right there!"
He was learning really fast now.
The minor moments with Tiger, not the major successes, were washing back over him. "Once," he said, "when Tiger was about 14 or 15, he blew his tee time at a tournament in San Diego. You know how some people cross their 7s? Well, the way it was written on the sheet, he misread his starting time. 'OK, you screwed up,' I said. 'Let's go home.' During the drive, after he finally came out of his funk, we got to talking about grinding for a score. Just then we passed a public golf course. 'Dad,' he said, 'can we stop here and practice grinding?' We played seven holes. He birdied five of them. When I see Tiger grinding now, that's what I think of, so long ago."
If I'd thought of it, I'd have told Earl he'd made his mark. He was the one who gave Tiger the dream. He was the one who taught him how to achieve it. Of course, he was also the one who showed him, three years hence, how to spoil it. Were the women what made Earl and Tiger tick, or were they just what made them human? You tell me.
From the rack of putters, I plucked the one engraved MASTERS, 1997, and swished it back and forth, asking Earl, "How do you like my stroke?" I expected him to say, "I don't."
But, when I looked up, his eyes were closed. He started to snore. On the Night of the Escalade, that's how one of the neighbors described Tiger on the ground. ("Actually, he was snoring.")
He was his father's son.
I liked Earl. I'm just as glad he wasn't around for the Christmas season of 2009, even if there might have been some justice in that.
Squaring the club, I looked at the target, looked at the ball, looked at the target, looked at the ball, forward-pressed slightly and putted to the picture.