Standing in the parched fairway on the par-5 18th hole at Los Serranos Country Club in Chino, Calif., last month, Tiger Woods needed a birdie. So, of course, he wanted an eagle. That's Tiger. He had a tight lie, slightly downhill, with barely any grass underneath the ball. He figured his second shot would have to travel 250 yards to clear the pond, another 30 yards to reach the green in two. But there was no way that anyone should hit a wood off that lie. Tiger grabbed a wood out of his bag.
On the 17th green, Tiger's caddie-daddy, Earl, had heard that veteran touring pro Mac O'Grady had finished at eight under par and that a seven-under score also had been posted. Tiger stood at six under. Only two of the 132 golfers who were at Los Serranos trying to qualify for the Nissan Los Angeles Open would gain the field for the PGA Tour event the next week. Earl Woods agonized about whether to apprise his son of the situation. Then, as Tiger pondered his second shot, Earl whispered, "Son, you've got to make birdie."
At the prematurely ripe age of 15 years, one month and 16 days, the ninth-grader was dead set on becoming the youngest golfer ever to play in a PGA tournament. Tiger wasn't thinking seven under. He was thinking eight under. He had come too far to play short.
Legend has it that at age two, Eldrick (Tiger) Woods shot a 48 on the back nine of the Navy Golf Course, in his hometown of Cypress, Calif. When his father senses an audit coming, he admits that his son played from the red tees and that every shot in the fairway was teed up. Uh-huh.
A year earlier Earl had told his wife, Kultida, and anybody else who would listen that Tiger would one day be a star on the PGA Tour. At the time, Tiger was dragging behind him a sawed-off putter instead of a rattle, and conceiving his swing by watching Earl fire five-irons into a net in the family garage. Although his attention span for strained carrots was little more than a spoonful, Tiger would sit quietly in his high chair studying his father's routine. He was a prodigy. "It was uncanny, the way he could emulate my swing," Earl says. "It was like looking at myself in a miniature mirror."
Earl, now 59, might have been a golf prodigy himself. Even though he couldn't tell the six-iron from the nine-iron, he shot a 91 for 17 holes the first time he played the game. He was a natural with a bright future, except for one thing—he was 42 years old. As a young man, Earl never thought much about golf. "I was a black kid, and golf was played at the country club—end of story," says Woods, who now plays to a three handicap. "But I told myself that somehow my son would get a chance to play golf early in life."
The result of Earl's vow, plus a well-intentioned phone call from Kultida, brought Los Angeles television sportscaster Jim Hill to the Navy Golf Course to view Tiger, a tiny diamond in the rough, not long before he shot the 48. Hill filmed Tiger playing a hole and concluded in his 1978 report, "This young man is going to be to golf what Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert are to tennis."
Connors? Evert? Remember, the kid was still in Pampers.
Hill's report transformed Tiger into a celebrity. A few months later, he appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, upstaging Bob Hope in a driving contest. At five, he was featured on That's Incredible.
Tiger was growing up in a hurry, and he was learning about more than golf. One day, at four, he was prohibited from playing at the Navy Golf Course because club management enforced a long-standing rule that children under 10 could not play the course. So Earl took his son to Heartwell Park Golf Club, a par-3 course in Long Beach, where Tiger developed what have become his strong suits—the irons, the short game and the Seve-esque ability to get out of trouble. Rudy Duran, the pro at Heartwell Park, watched Tiger hit all of seven shots before approving him to play there. "That was enough," says Duran, Tiger's coach from age four to 10. "I saw a kid who popped out of the womb a Magic Johnson or a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He had talent oozing out of his fingertips."