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There was really no way to know for sure if Fuzzy had it right about that. Maybe Earl and Tiger really did think that Fuzzy's racist comment was a big deal. Then, late in 2001, when Fuzzy was about to join the senior tour, I asked Earl about the incident, and the time was right. He said, "Fuzzy wasn't being malicious in those comments. He's a habitual comedian. For that he was crucified. I was appalled [at] the media reaction, but I couldn't say anything." In 1997 he felt he couldn't. In 2001 he felt he could. He knew what had happened in four years. His son had eclipsed Oprah and Jackson. Tiger still wasn't Gandhi, but he was getting there.
Spared for a Purpose
I caught up with Earl Woods in the spring of 2000. Even then Tiger and his mother were girding themselves for his passing. Earl had already had two open-heart surgeries, but he refused to alter his fatty diet, his killing habits. Everyone around him seemed resigned. After talking to him, I thought it was clear: To Earl his life's work was all but done. It was late on a Tuesday, his boy about to tee it up at La Costa. Tiger was, at that time, winning tournaments with spectacular ease. We were in Earl's hotel room. The afternoon light dissolved into dusk. The air grew dense as he smoked one cigarette after another.
"My health is not germane because I have no right to be here today," he said. "I'm supposed to be dead a long time ago. I'm supposed to be dead four or five times in combat. I was spared for a purpose. I couldn't understand what that purpose was until Tiger came along, and then I knew. And I devoted my entire life to making it possible.
"You can't fire your father; you're stuck with him. Here's how I kept Tiger with a level head: As soon as he'd get off a little bit, I'd look at him and say, 'You wasn't s--- before, you ain't s--- now, and you're never going to be s---.' And he'd start laughing. He loves it. To this day, I do that, and then he joins in with me for the last part, and we die laughing."
-- S.L. Price
In march 2000, as his son was ramping up for what would be the greatest season in golf history, I visited Earl Woods at the family home in Cypress, Calif. The house was an unassuming place on a corner lot in a quiet neighborhood. The only hint of the occupant was in the driveway: a silver 500 SL, which Tiger had given to his father after earning it with a victory at the 1997 Mercedes Championships.
I had come to Cypress to interview Earl about the local courses on which Tiger had learned the game, and the topic must have made the old man sentimental because he spent much of the afternoon showing off the memorabilia he had squirreled away in the house. There were lots of clubs, including Tiger's first one-iron, plus various momentous scorecards and a closet full of golf shirts worn during competitions going as far back as high school. "Don't worry, they've been laundered," Earl said, pulling one out to show me. It was from the 1996 NCAA Championships, which Tiger, then a Stanford sophomore, won to become only the third player, after Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson, to take the NCAAs and the U.S. Amateur in the same year. ( Ryan Moore has since joined the club.)