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What's Next?
June 26, 2006
Tiger Woods faces a future that's suddenly filled with uncertainty
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June 26, 2006

What's Next?

Tiger Woods faces a future that's suddenly filled with uncertainty

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Tiger looked small last week, like he hadn't been in the gym in a while. Normally, he strides fairways as if he owns them, but at the U.S. Open he looked like a visitor. His shirts were loose, and the great oaks of Winged Foot dwarfed him. He played two rounds of 76, and how many times did you hear him swear? Not even twice. There were few fist pumps and little chitchat with Steve Williams. The New York fans were standing and whooping for him: Welcome back, Tiga! It was his first tournament since the Masters and the first tournament since the death of his father, Earl, at age 74 on May 3. But Tiger Woods is not Arnold Palmer. His fire doesn't come from outside the ropes but from deep inside, from the seeds Earl planted there.

The U.S. Open was the first tournament of the rest of Tiger's life. Tiger had played 37 majors as a professional, Earl always watching. He won 10 of them and had never missed a cut. Earl's youthful instruction to Tiger was to "let the legend grow," and the son was dutiful. He won at Augusta as a boy golfer, and again in 2005 as a married man, playing for his ailing father, holing a you-have-to-be-joking pitch shot down the stretch. That was not the Tiger we saw last week, when he began his Thursday round with three straight bogeys and who finished his Friday round bogey-bogey to miss the cut by three. It was another golfer, one who did ordinary things.

Tiger still has his mother--and he still has Jack. Nicklaus's list of professional majors won, 18 titles long, has always been Tiger's ultimate goal. With Earl gone, that list becomes more important than ever.

Nicklaus had with his father what Tiger had with Earl. When Charlie Nicklaus died in February 1970, at age 56, Nicklaus was 30, the same age Tiger is now. When his father was on his deathbed, Jack was racked with guilt. In 1968 and '69 and in the early events in '70, by his own admission, Nicklaus was getting by on talent alone. His father had given him so much, and what was the son doing with it? Eating oysters, playing tennis, taking his kids on ski trips. Charlie Nicklaus died, and Jack won four of the next 10 majors.

Tiger's in a different place. Earl never saw Tiger take a slide, maybe because Tiger doesn't have a wood-paneled station wagon filled with kids, as Nicklaus did. Tiger and Elin are newlyweds, really. They're building a homestead downbeach from Jack and Barbara. You can imagine Tiger as an outstanding father, but that might sap his fire. (Jack was a father his whole career.) Tiger already wants to play infrequently and always at the highest level, as Bobby Jones did. A tall order. What will drive him? Wealth is not an issue, and his legend would be intact even if he retired today. His father--his first golf partner and his best friend--is dead.

Tiger's 30s will be nothing like his 20s, nor should they be. Jack's long list is a great and honorable and inspiring thing, but Tiger has probably figured out something: It's only a piece of paper.

Last week Tiger was asked to boil down his father's special gift.

"Love," he said.

He can't play for his father's hugs anymore. The void will be vast.

Happy Father's Day, damn Hallmark holiday.