July 13, 2008

Anaheim Angel

Inspired by his parents and Sept. 11, Tiger Woods unveils a $25-million learning center in Southern California

Clinton (left) and Shriver helped Woods launch the facility.

Clinton (left) and Shriver helped Woods launch the facility.

The occasion was more scripted than spontaneous, precluding the trademark fist pump, but it was at least as relevant to Tiger Woods' legacy as a ball pausing for a dramatic bow on the lip, and infinitely more important in general. He had begun to fulfill his father's bold prophecy a decade ago that his son would change the world.

Woods last Friday christened the Tiger Woods Learning Center, a 35,000-square-foot, high-tech complex in Anaheim, Calif., that deliberately places golf in the proper context -- "a recreational option," as a brochure says, to the greater goal of providing kids with educational opportunities that emphasize careers.

"This," Woods said, shortly before the ceremony, "is bigger than anything I've done on the golf course. Oh, my God, it's very emotional."

Its magnitude was amplified by the dignitaries there to mark the occasion, including former President Bill Clinton and Maria Shriver, wife of California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was representing the state. Each spoke to the importance of service.

[#image: /photos/55ad9ba6add713143b4392f1]|||Woods|||

"I'm impressed that Tiger Woods decided to do this when he was 30 instead of when he was 60," Clinton said, while juxtaposing Woods' success against his own political failures after he was elected governor of Arkansas at 32. "It's hard to have great gifts and bring them to bear in the public eye under enormous pressure when you're young," Clinton said. "It's a tribute to you that you've been able to amass stunning records and still keep hold of yourself and start giving back at this point in your life."

The genesis of the center was an epiphany Woods experienced driving home to Florida from St. Louis in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "I did a lot of reflecting," he said, finally concluding that he was not doing enough to help. "A month or so later, it hit me. Build a learning center."

The $25-million project was funded in large measure by 25 founding partners that include Nike, Target and Augusta National GC. Woods contributed $5 million to the project, as well as earmarking his earnings from his Target World Challenge.

Charity, the axiom says, begins at home. The learning center was built on 14 acres donated by Orange County, adjacent to the Dad Miller GC where Woods played many high school matches. Moreover, home was a common theme at the dedication ceremony that was as much a paean to Woods' parents -- Earl, who preached to a young Tiger the concept of "sharing and caring," and Kultida, who forcefully insisted her son have his priorities in order.

Shriver, a mother of four, recounted her conversation with Kultida, who explained her strict child-rearing tactics and how she put the fear of God into her son, in part by threatening to take away his golf clubs.

[#image: /photos/55ad9ba6b01eefe207f7d716]|||Woods|||Earl Woods' health kept him from being at the center's edication, but he showed off a model with his son in 2004

Clinton took his cue from Shriver. "In the background of every great man is a boy who was terrified of his mother," he said, evoking laughter from an invitation-only crowd in excess of 1,000 that included Nike Golf president Bob Wood and Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh.

"This is by far the greatest thing that's ever happened to me, to come back and create a learning center for these kids," Woods said. "It's near and dear to my heart. My father's not here today. He's a little bit sick. He's been battling a few things. I talked to him last night. He's disappointed he couldn't be here, but he did want me to deliver one message: Thank you. Thank you for coming together and helping these kids have a future."

The learning center, he said, belongs to the kids, to the extent that they help determine the curriculum. "They watch 'CSI,' " he said, "so here we've got a forensics lab. Someone wants to be a rapper. Here we've got a recording studio." The seven classrooms include creative writing, robotics, engineering, universal science and forensic science. There also is a computer lab. Already, 150 students from the Anaheim school districts are participating in programs there, while 5,000 students, fourth through 12th grades, eventually are expected to pass through every year.

"I would have expected this. He's a brilliant person, and he's got emotional integrity," said Walsh, who was the Stanford football coach when Woods was a student there. Woods befriended the coach and often dropped in on him to sit and chat. "He was one of the most unique people I've ever known. He was a kid, and it was like he was 35 or 40. He was 19. He was a totally mature adult, and he was brighter than I was."

It was high praise from a man known as "the Genius" for his coaching acumen, but not altogether unwarranted. Even as he pursued golf with a ferocity that suggested otherwise, Woods was smart enough to recognize early on that golf wasn't all there was to life.