John Anselmo was already in his mid 60s, a respected but otherwise obscure teaching professional at a nondescript public golf course, when he was asked to take on another student, a 10-year-old as thin as a 1-iron.
They went to the range at Meadowlark Golf Club in Huntington Beach, Calif., after which Anselmo phoned his son, Dan, also a teaching professional.
“I have this new kid named Tiger Woods,” Anselmo told Dan. “He’s a tour player in a little boy’s body. He just needs to grow into it.”
Anselmo oversaw Tiger’s growth for the next seven years, coaching him to the brink of greatness before handing him off to Butch Harmon.
On Friday, word came down that Anselmo had died. He was 96.
“He was just an encouraging person whoever he was with," Dan Anselmo said on Friday. "He worked with arguably one of greatest players ever, but for me as a teacher what I appreciate most about him was his enthusiasm to help anybody, even the little old lady who could barely swing a club. That’s who he was.”
It was Tiger, obviously, with whom he was most closely identified, allowing him in the last third of his life to achieve a level of renown that he had not experienced before in a crowded profession in which he had begun working in the '40s.
Anselmo developed his eye for teaching while in the Navy, stationed in San Diego towards the end of World War II. “That’s where Sam Snead was stationed,” Dan said. “He was able to watch Snead for hours and hours, watching him practicing and playing. That’s where he learned.”
More than four decades later, in 1986, Tiger’s father Earl was looking for an instructor to succeed Rudy Duran. Ray Oakes, a PGA of America professional who knew both Earl and Anselmo, recommended that Tiger work with Anselmo.
In Tiger, Anselmo saw greatness. “I saw so much rhythm and balance even when he was 10,” he once told me. “I was awed by it. I knew even at that time he was special. It’s like it’s destiny. It’s so exciting to have been a part of the Tiger team.”
In Anselmo, Woods, might have been intrigued by the era in which Anselmo represented. "Tiger was already a student of golf," Dan said. "My father’s history and age at the time, he was out of the Southern California era when you had the Sneads and the Hogans and the Demarets making the West Coast swing. Dad was part of that. I think that attracted Tiger to my father."
Dan recalled that the most significant challenge his father encountered teaching Tiger, “like any young kid, was that he was trying to be too active with his arms and hands and wrists and hitting the ball too far. My dad taught him to work with his big muscles and to manage his growth. During his incredible junior career he grew quite tall quickly. My dad was able to manage that.”
In 1993, Anselmo was diagnosed with colon cancer and was unable to teach for the better part of a year. Tiger, in the interim, had begun working with Harmon.
“I think my father felt that he had given Tiger everything he had,” Dan said. “He did not have any ill feelings turning him over to Butch. It was really a good fit. And Butch always was extremely complimentary with the work my dad had done with Tiger.”
Anselmo and Woods did not stay in close contact, but their paths occasionally crossed through the years. They last saw one another in 2011 in China. The Anselmos had an academy in Bejing, and John was there on one of his infrequent visits. Woods was there for a Nike promotion and was giving a speech at a college there. When Woods saw Anselmo, he said, "what the [bleep] are you doing here?"
“This is your fault,” Anselmo replied, alluding to the fact that the academy was a direct result of the relationship his father had had with Woods.
Tiger embraced a teary-eyed Anselmo.
Through the years, Anselmo remained “Tiger’s biggest fan,” Dan said, the scandal notwithstanding. Yet he was not necessarily enamored with what had become of Woods’ golf game. “Lots of things I'd like to tell him,” Anselmo told Golf World editor Jaime Diaz in 2014. “First, quit trying to kill the ball. And I would ask him what he feels during the swing, because he was a feel player. I don’t know if it’s possible for him to be the player he was. But I know he hasn't forgotten how to create a swing. There’s still some greatness in there.”
Anselmo was familiar with his greatness, having nourished it for seven years and admired it in the years that followed. At the peak of Woods’ greatness, Tiger was conducting a clinic at which Anselmo showed up.
“How do I look?” Tiger asked him.
“You look like I always pictured you would,” Anselmo replied.