Earl Woods

Father and first coach of 'Tiger'


Earl Dennison Woods, soldier: born Manhattan, Kansas 5 March 1932; married first 1954 Barbara Hart (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Kultida Punsawad (one son); died Cypress, California 3 May 2006.

Earl Woods liked to recall the day in 1976 when his 10-month-old baby boy Eldrick, already nicknamed "Tiger", picked up a putter and whacked a ball into a practice net in the family garage in California. The rest was to become golfing history.

But the former US army Green Beret always insisted that he was not one of those sporting fathers who had dollar signs for eyeballs and pushed his son too hard, too soon. "My purpose in raising Tiger was not to raise a good golfer," he said. "I wanted to raise a good person."

He admitted he had used his experience as a Special Forces interrogator in Vietnam to toughen his son's psyche. But it was young Tiger, he said, showing prodigious talent and passion for the game, who set his own agenda from an early age. "The greatest misconception the public seems to have of me is that I am a dominating, possessive, dictatorial stage father," he said in an interview with Golf Digest magazine. "That is exactly 180 degrees from the truth."

Earl Woods first ran into criticism when he referred to his son as "The Chosen One" and compared him at various times with Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela. But he insisted he was misquoted on each occasion. What he meant, he said, was

that Tiger is as charismatic and would have an impact upon the world, in a humanitarian aspect, very similar to that of Gandhi . . . he will be like an ambassador at large, without portfolio.

Whether or not he was right on that, he coached his son to beat Bob Hope in a putting contest on a television show when Tiger was only two, and to beat 18-year-olds when he was six, before handing the prodigy over to professional coaches. Earl himself had been 42 before he took up golf, on retirement from the army, but quickly became a scratch player and once shot a nine-under-par 72. As illness began to prevent him from attending tournaments later in life, he said he talked his son through shots by telepathy. Tiger said he often heard his father's voice when lining up a putt.

One of Tiger Woods's most openly emotional moments came after his Augusta Masters victory in 2005. "This one's for you, Pops," he said, looking into a television camera with tears in his eyes.

Earl Dennison Woods was born the youngest of six children in the town of Manhattan, Kansas, in 1932. His father, Miles, died when he was 11 and his mother, Maude, two years later, leaving him to be raised by a sister. He experienced considerable racism at school and at Kansas State University, where he was a star baseball catcher, the first African-American in the college conference, and hoped for a career in the sport. But he knew he would be limited to the nation's "Negro leagues". The major leagues were still closed to black players and Woods had to sit in the back of the bus that took his university team to games.

After he graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1953, he joined the army. He married Barbara Hart in 1954 and had two sons and a daughter but eventually divorced, admitting that he had not spent enough time with his children because of his army career. In a book entitled At All Costs (My Life with the Man behind the Tiger) (2000), his ex-wife accused him of virtually abandoning their three children and later of cutting Tiger off from them.

Earl Woods became a Green Beret in 1960 and served two long combat tours in Vietnam, "escaping death more times than I can remember". Some of that combat was alongside the South Vietnamese army colonel Vuong Dang Phong, whose nickname "Tiger" Earl Woods later bestowed on his own son to honour his friend and comrade.

It was in Thailand, organising rest-and-recreation facilities for US troops, that Woods met Kultida ("Tida") Punsawad, who would become his second wife.

Earl Woods retired with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1974 and Tida gave birth to Tiger on 30 December the following year. Tida was, in her own words, "half-Thai, one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter white". Earl described himself as "half-black, one-quarter American-Indian and one-quarter Chinese". Hence Tida's description of Tiger as "the universal child".

As Tiger's success grew, the couple drifted apart, but they remained married and Earl insisted they were "not separated, and still good friends". Earl continued to live in the bungalow in Cypress, California, where Tiger was born and hit that first ball. Earl retained souvenirs of Tiger's childhood and career, including the practice net in the garage, and hoped that the house would one day be turned into a Tiger Woods museum.

Earl Woods was the author of several books on his life with Tiger, including Training a Tiger (1997) and Playing Through (1998). He was also President of the Tiger Woods Foundation, set up to encourage parents' responsibility and involvement in their children's lives and to "celebrate the spirit of inclusion in all aspects of human existence".

"The game of golf can be a metaphor for life," he wrote:

My life, for certain. I have experienced my share of birdies and a few eagles, yet it seems I have encountered more sand traps and bogeys than I care to recall. And as I walk down the 18th fairway of my lifetime, I hold my head high and make no apologies for the decisions and statements I have made.

I have been a survivor, a living testimony that others like me can beat the odds, withstand the cruelties, indignities and setbacks that life can offer.

Phil Davison

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