James Lawton: Tiger can make another giant imprint on sporting history by honouring his father

The Sports Columnist of the Year in Augusta
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No game lives more comfortably with its past, and its ghosts, than golf and nowhere do you get a stronger sense of this than here in the spring. Sometimes, however, the raw edge of life itself intrudes with overwhelming force.

It was like that last year with Jack Nicklaus as he played his final competitive round amid the azaleas and the dogwoods and the sadness created by the tragic loss of a beloved grandson and the evidence of his own mortality: another missed cut. It is the same with Tiger Woods this time as he weighs the meaning of a possible, some would say likely, staggering fifth Masters win in 10 attempts against the need to be near his critically ill father, and Svengali, Earl.

The Tiger, we can be sure, will shape his priorities in the next few days without concession to easy sentiment; bleeding hearts do not dominate any sphere of life, and certainly not as profoundly as he has done golf these last nine years, and while he monitors his father's battle with prostate cancer almost by the hour, it is far from inconceivable that he will perform the most astonishing feat of a career that long ago challenged belief.

Honour Thy Father is a command of Biblical authority and how better could Woods do this than with another confirmation that when the old jungle fighter declared that his son was a "chosen one" he was following the instincts of his heart and his knowledge rather than the hyperbole of just another driven "sports father"? No doubt Earl Woods pushed the envelope of paternal pride a little too far when he declared - a year before the Tiger's pulverising first victory here in 1997 - "he will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before. He's qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. I don't know exactly yet what form this will take but yes, he is a chosen one. The world is just getting a taste of his power". As prophecy went, this was probably unprecedented since John the Baptist announced the arrival of the Messiah and inevitably it provoked scorn; some of it lingers powerfully with the claim of some black activists that Woods is a nominal "brother" and others wondering if he ever will speak out against the exploitation of another branch of his heritage, the slave-shop young fodder of the sports goods business in Asia.

But if Woods senior lurched spectacularly beyond normal pride in a successful son, plainly in some ways he wasn't so far wrong. In the chauvinistic fortress which this country has become so progressively in the last few years, Woods remains a marvel of ethnic assimilation. He was never of the ghetto, but nor is he of the country club, a fact which was part of his devastating impact when he ran away with his first Masters and produced a game which even Arnie Palmer admitted wasn't absolutely familiar.

Now, as Earl Woods fights for his life, there is no shortage of evidence that when he worked so slavishly with his son, he was intent on helping to fashion more than a mere sports icon. One compelling witness is Rudy Duran, a Southern Californian golf instructor who was in charge of the technical golf education of Tiger between the ages of five and 10.

Duran says: "When he was seven or eight, Tiger was already an amazing golfer, but there was no question in my mind that if he came and said he wanted to play the piano, there would have been no anxiety by his parents. They put no extra value on playing golf. Tiger was the motivated one and Earl and his mother, Tida, were great in providing an environment of unconditional love, an environment where he could excel.

"They were very consistent in their reaction, whether Tiger finished first in a tournament or 10th. To me, the family was raising a child - not a golfer. The golf was just something he had an aptitude for.

"There was no mistaking the parents made the rules and Tiger and the other kids followed the rules, but it wasn't a harsh environment; it seemed quite normal. Homework came first, golf second - end of story."

Another coach who handled Tiger in his high school days, and also watched a prospective NFL quarterback prospect wither under the pressure exerted by his father, confirms Duran's assessment. Said Don Crosby: "Tiger's father let him be a kid all the way through. Some kids who are talented at sports practice because their parents have their thumbs on them. There is a ton of that; kids out there hitting balls for four or five hours because their parents are making them do it. Somewhere along the line those kids are going to want to be just kids."

There are a thousand echoes from such a statement. One of them comes back from the time when Jennifer Capriati, performing as magisterially as the young Tiger did in his high school days, was asked if she ever wished she could take an afternoon off from tennis stardom and take a trip to the mall with her pals. She feigned shock. "No, she said: "I don't want to waste my time sitting around some soda fountain... It is my friends who envy me and not the other way around. I travel the world and when I see them at school they want to know about all that."

Capriati's father, Stefano, nodded vigorously in the background. But another witness to the scene, Martin Navratilova, commented: "I wouldn't want a kid of mine out there being driven under current conditions."

A few years later, Capriati was admitting she felt "horrible" about herself. She thought she was fat and ugly and one-dimensional, that she didn't have a real life, and of course the consequences of such self-loathing did not come far behind: a shoplifting incident and arrest for drug possession in a cheap motel.

Capriati eventually went back to school and reshaped her life. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods was breaking every record known to golf.

He says of his golf foundation: "I'm focusing on that right now with our learning centre and trying to help kids, not necessarily in golf but just in life and academics. That's been my focus. If we produce golfers, that's fine, but I want us to produce good citizens and that will help and give back."

Some might dismiss this as the smoothest of Tigerspeak, and they are likely to be those who also point out that his sensational breakthrough in 1997 has yet to produce any march of young black players on to the PGA tour. Woods remains the one-man army of the ethnic minorities on the fairways of country club America; an isolated promontory of sporting emancipation that is simply staggering in its scale. A detail of his material success: he owns a house and a boat in Florida of the combined value of $60 million (£34.5m). But Joe Louis Barrow, son of the great heavyweight, insists that the meaning of Tiger Woods cannot be quantified in such a short space of time. "When Tiger won so incredibly in Augusta it was a thrilling moment... you thought 'we've arrived', in a place beyond the basketball court and the things of poor black neighbourhoods. Sure you would want more progress in golf, but I'm sure it will come with the generations. What Tiger did was show that it could happen - that a black kid could follow in his tracks." Now there is another truth about the nature of Tiger Woods and his imprint on sporting history...

It is that while primarily he will always be a testament to the genius that can descend, quite unaccountably, on any individual, he is also a product of the most fastidious care.

Some were inclined to dismiss Earl Woods as another hard-blowing sports father, a man who for all his own achievements in the American military was living another life on the tails of his prodigiously gifted son. But certain presumptions were awry. One of them was that whatever else he was, Earl Woods did not have a touch of genius of his own. It was for bringing up his boy. This is why arguably the world's greatest sportsman has one huge priority this week. It is no more, or no less, than to honour his father properly.