The Earl I Knew
Tiger and Earl Woods enjoying a photo shoot for Golf Digest in 1991
Earl Woods, a great man upon close examination who stood for leveling the playing field among other lofty and improbable ideals, didn't reveal his interior to many people. Green Berets are clandestine by necessity. You could probably count the number of trustees to the real Earl on two hands: Tida, his devoted wife of 30-plus years; Tiger, his beloved son whom he taught every good and useful thing he knew in what his dad called the "Earl Woods finishing school;" three children from a previous marriage; his siblings; and Joe Grant, his old military buddy/confidant, who preceded Earl in death by a few months from the same culprit, cancer.
I first met Earl in January 1995. I had flown to California at his request. He had liked a cover piece I had written for Golf World honoring Tiger as the magazine's "Man of the Year" and asked me to help him write a book. I had been with the magazine little more than a year and was still transitioning from small-town life in North Carolina to the faster pace around Golf World's office in Connecticut. Los Angeles was something else entirely. I put a death grip on the steering wheel of the rental car upon entering the hectic expressway near LAX and didn't relinquish it until pulling into the driveway of the Woods' home in Cypress.
"Hi there, young blood," Earl said, greeting me at the door. "You ready to work?"
Earl was never afraid of hard work, an attribute he passed on to Tiger. "You get out of it what you put into it," he would say. We sat in the living room for six hours and recorded Earl's philosophies on parenting a champion in golf and life. Tida fed us Thai barbeque chicken. More than half of Training a Tiger, Earl's best-seller, was written during that session--off the top of Earl's head. He was brilliant that way.
That was the beginning of a relationship between two people who connected on a lot of levels. I understood the yoke of being a minority in America and the burden of proof placed on us in the oft-unholy game of golf. We would oil that saw whenever injustice, subtle or flagrant, reared its ugly head. Earl understood the vagaries of parenthood, how to handle a rebellious child, how to lead by example and, most importantly, how to love unconditionally even when there is little or no reciprocity. He was my advisor on personal and financial matters; my confidant during some turbulent times in my life; my brother in arms, so to speak; my loyal friend.
Our relationship was one of mutual respect and trust. I came to believe nearly every call Earl made. History had taught me never to doubt him or Tiger. When he said, "Tiger will be the first champion golfer of African-American heritage who didn't come by way of the caddie ranks or hustling. He was raised to be a champion," I never doubted those words.
When he warned me that "you have one and only one screw-up with Tiger, then he'll cut you off just like that," I nodded, years later realizing that Tiger's unforgiving nature is a byproduct of the maternal side of the family, not a directive from "the old man." The morgue is littered with relationships that failed Tida's test. Fortunately, I took Earl's warning to heart.
Earl also was prone to hyperbole, and sometimes it landed him in trouble. When he claimed Tiger would have a similar impact on humanity as Gandi, some folks scoffed. Others were deeply offended. That's because they didn't understand where Earl was coming from. He meant that through golf, Tiger would bring people of all races together. Check out the diversity of Tiger's galleries and philanthropic reach of his foundation. Earl knew what he was talking about.
My memory is filled with Earl-isms culled from late-night and early-morning conversations. Earl's advice on remarriage: "Why would you let the snake back in your sleeping bag after finally getting the damn thing out?" Earl's take on Tiger's unlimited potential: "Tiger has no comfort zone." Earl on conserving strokes: "Golf is like banking--when you make a deposit, cut your arm off before making a withdrawal." Earl on racism in golf: "You never get used to 'the look.' " Earl on growing old: "Yeah, I have everything I ever wanted--about 20 years too late."
And, like most of us, Earl had some bad habits. He could curse in a couple of languages. He had a fondness for cheeseburgers, and bacon and eggs, even after two heart-bypass surgeries. And the smoking vice dogged him to his dying day. Tiger called him the most stubborn man he knew. I agree with that assessment, although Tiger is a close second.
The last time I saw Earl was a sunny day last December. My fiancée and I were greeted at the door of the upgraded Cypress home by Earl's male nurse. Earl was sitting in a recliner in the living room in full nod. I gently shook him awake. During 30 minutes of lucid conversation Earl revealed vivid details of his battle with cancer, including recent brain surgery. As always, our conversation took no planned course but it did include a recurring element: We made each other laugh. Earl always made me laugh, even when life wasn't particularly funny.
Before we said goodbye for what would be the last time, he pushed himself to his feet, his legs, swollen from steroids, quaking from the effort. "See, I can stand up," he said as the nurse stood at the ready just in case. Never doubted him for a second.