Heartwell Golf Course, tucked in a sleepy residential neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif., does not have the air of the historic. It lacks the grandeur of, say, the Colosseum or the Pyramids, and it offers no windows into the soul, as do Graceland or Monticello. Still, strolling around Heartwell is a journey back in time because this will forever be remembered as one of the places where Tiger Woods blossomed as a golfer, never mind that it remains nothing more than a scruffy par-3 course where the longest hole measures 140 yards and grass is a precious commodity.
However humble, Heartwell and the other courses of Woods's youth are the Elysian fairways that formed his earliest dreams. "You see the 3rd hole, over there, through the trees?" asks Rudy Duran, Woods's first teacher, during a tour of the Heartwell course. "It's less than 100 yards, but when Tiger started playing here, at 4�, he couldn't carry that front bunker, even with his driver. It was frustrating for him, but it was also a good learning experience. He was introduced to strategy on that hole—where was the best place to lay up, the best angle to attack the green."
Serendipity brought Tiger and Duran together. Heartwell was the nearest par-3 course to the Woods home, in the adjacent town of Cypress. One day Tida Woods, Tiger's mother, showed up with her Mozart in spikes, and asked Duran, Heartwell's head pro, if he would take a look at her son's swing. To that point Woods had been tutored by his father, Earl. Tiger had only a three-club set back then, and he employed a baseball grip because his tiny fingers were not strong enough to hold a club conventionally. Nevertheless, Duran was flabbergasted by what he saw. "He was like a shrunken-down Jack Nicklaus," he says, and on that day a relationship, both professional and personal, was born.
Unlike Woods, Duran was late coming to golf. He had been introduced to the game as a teenager on what he calls "divorce weekends," when he would visit his father. (That the lifelong bachelor would later become a father figure to thousands of young golfers is probably less than coincidence.) Duran grew up in the San Fernando Valley; joined the Air Force out of high school, in 1968; and was stationed in West Germany, not a bad assignment considering that the Vietnam War was raging. While in the Air Force, Duran played golf nearly every day, and he turned pro upon his discharge in 1971. He spent most of the 1970s on the fringes of the game, going broke trying to make the PGA Tour from 1976 to '78.
That bitter experience led him into teaching, and by the time Woods was dropped on his doorstep, in 1980, Duran had established a thriving junior program at Heartwell, allowing his pint-sized charges to play the course for free, without restrictions. Every Saturday there was a sprawling tournament in which as many as 100 kids played off preestablished handicaps. "For a while it seemed like every good golfer who came out of Southern California was part of that junior program," says Kelly Manos, who graduated from Heartwell to a scholarship at Southern Cal, where he played alongside Dave Stockton Jr. Among the other Heartwell regulars were Cypress native Amy Fruhwirth, the '91 U.S. Women's Amateur champ and subsequently an LPGA winner, and another dozen or so players who became touring or club pros.
Woods thrived in this environment. Heartwell has 18 par-3s and measures 2,143 yards. Because Tiger wasn't strong enough to reach most of the holes with his driver, Duran, adjusting for distance, established a "Tiger par" of 67 for the course.
At five Tiger received his first complete set of clubs (including, at his insistence, a one-iron) and shortly thereafter shot an eight-under 59, which greatly impressed Duran. As he got older, Tiger became more competitive in the Saturday tournaments, which were already the "peak of his week," according to Earl. Says Manos, "When Tiger was six, I was 16, and we were playing together one Saturday along with some other guys my age. We got to the 16th tee, and I said to the fellas, 'Do you realize this little s—- is tied with us?' Damned if he didn't go on and beat all of us. It was incredible. I mean, he was hitting three-woods, and we were swinging wedges. There was no animosity—we were all kids, you know? It was like, 'Wow, cool, the little guy did it.' "
Says Duran, "Tiger's genius wasn't his swing, although it was very good. His genius was using his swing to shoot low numbers. It was like an artist with a tool, carving something." Recognizing the potential of his prodigy, Duran sought to expand his education at every turn. In 1984, when Tiger was eight, Duran took him to watch his first pro tournament, the L.A. Open at Riviera. Later that year Duran teed it up in the Queen Mary Open, a minitour event in Long Beach, and Tiger served as his caddie, chugging along with a pull cart.
By 1985, Heartwell was but a fond memory. American Golf had snapped up the course and put the kibosh on the junior program. Duran moved one town to the north, to Bellflower, and its eponymous golf and tennis center. The Bellflower range was shoddy at best, but its nine-hole par-3 course forced Tiger to expand his game. Five of the holes exceeded 140 yards—the length of Heartwell's longest hole—including the 7th, which played to 167 yards, and the 9th, a robust 190-yarder. Tiger spent more than two years mastering the course.
In reconstructing the time line of Tiger's development, 1986, when he was 10, was the pivotal year, the one during which he lost a teacher but gained an important golf course. In '86, Duran spent all of his time managing two excellent 18-hole courses in Paso Robles, a dusty farming town in central California. "It was a major career opportunity," he says, "and I couldn't say no." To continue Tiger's instruction, Earl hired John Anselmo, who was teaching at Los Alamitos Golf Course, a muni one mile from the Woods house. Even closer to home was the Navy Golf Course in Cypress, with its minimum-age requirement of 10. After his birthday on Dec. 30, 1985, Tiger was finally eligible to play there, although he already had a history at the course.