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These should be the best of times for Tiger Woods. He remains happily married to a Swedish bikini model. Golf Digest recently ran the numbers and projected that by 2010 Woods will be the first athlete to earn a billion dollars, and he is certainly enjoying his money. He just closed escrow on a $38 million estate on a finger of land on Jupiter Island, Fla., that is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, the latter being the perfect place to park his $22 million yacht, Privacy.
But Woods is about more than just conspicuous consumption. On Feb. 10 he will preside over the grand opening of the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, a 35,000-square-foot complex designed to prepare youths for careers in math, science, technology and language arts. (For study breaks there will be a 10-acre driving range and putting course.) Woods describes the completion of the $25 million project as "monumental," adding, "With this building and hopefully subsequent buildings down the road, I think we can really make a tremendous impact on kids' lives and futures."
He still plays a little golf, too. At last week's Buick Invitational, Woods kicked off his 10th season as a pro with his 47th PGA Tour victory. The performance was all the more noteworthy because it followed the longest break of his career: six weeks between events, including a 24-day stretch during which he didn't touch a club. But in victory Woods was strangely subdued, and not because he was handed the win when his friend Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal whiffed a four-foot putt on the second playoff hole at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif. Having recently turned 30, Woods is now facing one of life's most sobering realities, the mortality of one's father.
Earl Woods has long been his son's guiding force on and off the golf course. When Tiger was a peewee prodigy, his father famously jangled the change in his pocket and flung tees at his son in mid-swing, the better to instill mental toughness. It was Earl's dream that Tiger make a contribution to society beyond winning tournaments, and as chairman of the Tiger Woods Foundation, Earl has been actively involved in the creation of the Learning Center. But now the former Green Beret is fighting for his life, due to a relapse of prostate cancer that was first diagnosed in 1998. It was thought to have been eradicated by radiation therapy, but in 2004 Earl revealed that the cancer had returned and spread throughout his body, causing lesions on his back and a tumor behind his left eye. "My eye was literally pushed out of the socket," Earl told the Boston Herald in September 2004. "The pain was so bad, it was past being a headache. There's no such thing as a headache like that."
More radiation therapy followed, and last spring Earl was given a clean bill of health, though Tiger--a noted exercise freak--was not impressed by his father's lifestyle. "He doesn't exactly take care of himself," he said last May. "He's still puffing away, and that's just the way it is. He's been real stubborn about everything. It's got him this far, so we'll just kind of leave him be."
The cancer returned near the end of 2005, and soon Earl's condition became grave--"touch and go," according to an intimate of Tiger's. The 24 days in which Woods did not touch a club were spent by Earl's side. "He's my dad, and I love him to death," Tiger said. "He's my best friend, and anytime [I] can spend that much time [with him], especially when he wasn't feeling all that well, it meant the world to me."
At the Buick, Woods honored his father the best way he knows how, with superb golf. It wasn't the first time that's happened. After shooting a 63 at last year's Ford Championship, Woods said he was merely granting "a birthday wish" to his old man, who had turned 73 that day. A month later Tiger dedicated his Masters victory to Earl in a tearful green jacket ceremony. It was a rare outpouring of emotion, and last week Woods kept his feelings mostly out of view, his grim resolve on the golf course matched by a stoic pressroom demeanor with which he tersely deflected questions about Earl. With a nod to Earl's old mind games, Tiger's friend Charles Howell observed the obvious last week, saying, "He's good at blocking things out."
Yet Woods's Buick victory owed more than a little to his willingness to let his father in. When it comes to golf they share an almost mystical connection. Earl is confined to his home in Cypress, Calif., the same modest dwelling, tucked into a middle-class neighborhood, in which Tiger was raised. When facing a crucial putt in his playoff against Olaz�bal, Tiger later said he could picture Earl "sitting on the couch saying, 'Just lag it up there.'" To that point Woods had been suffering through a disastrous putting round on Torrey's bumpy greens, but with a deft lag he secured the par that won the tournament. No doubt Earl was pleased.
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