Nov 1st, 2017
When GolfPunk met Tiger Woods. When Tiger was 17?
GP goes back to 1994, to an incredible day with the great man
Words: Tim Southwell Photography: Getty Images
GolfPunk looks back to 1994 – to a much simpler time, a time when a humble journalist from London could actually get Tiger Woods on the phone at his house, chat to his mum and dad and share jokes about the fact Tiger is always in the shower when I phone up.
A time when said journalist could meet him for breakfast, play golf, goof around and go for Mexican dinner all in the same day. With Tiger Woods...
Back in 1994— and apologies to original GolfPunk (and indeed loaded) readers who’ve heard this story before — I got to spend a day with Tiger. He was 17 years old and just about to compete in, and win, his third US Amateur Championship.
I met him at the Navy Golf Club in Cyprus and he struck me as a quiet, unassuming chap. Very friendly and polite. He didn’t need to be that way. He just was.
We spent time on the range and he delighted in showing me his extraordinary trick shot, a long, high draw/hook with a seven iron which launched clean out of the range, over the first fairway, before bending back across the fairway and landing in a spot on the range no more than 20 feet away from the previous shot.
He was giggling as he did it.
“This is the only shot I can make,” he grinned. “You try it.”
So I did. Several times. With Tiger’s expert eye he soon had me hitting the same shot and I’ve used it to turn a seven into a six on many occasions since.
Tiger struck me as a very calm, quiet, polite kid but even when he was messing around on the range, there was a control about everything he did. He seemed like a guy who would never knowingly make a fool of himself for the sake of it. Popularity would arrive via a different route.
We played 18 holes, had a putting competition and went for dinner at his favourite local Mexican. We talked about his plans for the future, how he was going to be the greatest golfer ever, and not just the best black golfer. The best. Ever.
There was a certainty in his voice and expression. There was no other option for him. He knew he was going to be the best no matter what got in his way. We also talked about his plans for a foundation. When I was 17 I was coming home from the pub and being sick on my mum’s carpet. Tiger was making plans for a global legacy.
He also talked about his intention to set up the Tiger Woods Foundation. He was 17 years old and here he was talking about using his imminent position of world domination in golf, as leverage to help other people. This was Tigers' first ever interview with a magazine and when I came back to London I was convinced we had something incredibly special.
Three years later Tiger won the 1997 Masters by a country mile and the idea of getting him on the phone or anywhere else for that matter was sheer nonsense. In a few short years, he had astonished us all and become the most famous sports person in the world.
As he blazed a trail through the golf world that beggared belief, he was increasingly protected, smothered even, by those employed around him. Tiger Woods was untouchable.
The years have not been kind to Tiger. He lost his invincibility virtually over night, when his bizarre sexual indiscretions were revealed and his wife Elin put a three iron through his windscreen.
The awe we all felt turned to disbelief that someone as feted as Tiger Woods could carry on like a not very good gigolo. And with a bunch of ropey cocktail waitresses to boot.
Then he started getting injured. A lot. And he slowly lost his grip on the sport he had dominated like no other golfer has ever done. As all this happened he became – if it were possible – even less inclined to offer himself up in any way shape or form, whether it be to sign a seven-year-old fan's autograph book, or to agree to do an interview with GolfPunk, the magazine & website that only launched (in April 2004, precisely 10 years to the day after that day in 1994) due to the inspiration Tiger had given us.
Up until very recently – when Tiger has, for whatever reason (let's hope it's just because underneath everything, he's actually a nice bloke...) attempted to reinvent himself as a cooperative, more sensitive and accommodating Tiger – the general consensus was that Tiger Woods had become the golf equivalent of a social anvil, never afraid to come crashing down on you, should you dare to get in his way or, god forbid, try to beat him at golf.
Every time he stormed past a group of screaming, autograph-hunting kids, we all looked away, uneasy at this unfortunate juxtaposition of the gulf in empathy that is Tiger and his fans. You can argue that he is in the zone, in a tunnel that only acknowledges the immediate vision ahead. Game on. Tiger no see fans. Tiger win golf tournament. Tiger fulfill destiny.
The kids who idolize Tiger can’t understand why he spurns them. Tiger can’t understand why they can’t understand. It’s unrequited love of the harshest kind.
The Top 10 Tiger Shots on the PGA Tour
Trouble is, by all accounts, Tiger didn’t have much of a childhood. Certainly the kind that most of us would recognize. The result is a dude who hasn’t computed the need to be nice. All he needs is what is immediately around him. His staff, his kids, his ability.
In his book The Big Miss, Hank Haney reveals his astonishment when a third party informed him that Tiger considered Haney to be one of his best friends. Haney was shocked, as he was actually was under the impression that Tiger didn’t particularly like him.
Talk about a lack of empathy. Tiger doesn’t get friendship like normal people do. And who can blame him? While everyone else was climbing trees and goofing around, Tiger was busy elsewhere being groomed for greatness.
From the moment he could understand what his dad wanted him to do, there was one mission and one mission alone. Tiger’s dad could see an incredible talent and understandably wanted Tiger to become the greatest golfer, nee sportsman, who ever lived.
The idea of Tiger wasting precious time larking about with friends and probably seemed a bit pointless when you had the opportunity to do something that really, really mattered.
Tiger had a higher calling and it would consume his every waking hour, to the detriment of most everything else. The Woods’s were a close-knit family and that dynamic was enough. Love is in the house. Trust is in the house. Everyone else can swivel.
By the time Tiger turned pro he was already in that precarious place that famous people don’t particularly like. That place where you’re never quite certain if your friends are really your friends. I remember George Michael talking about the downside of fame: “When you tell a joke,” George said, “You never really know if people are laughing because it’s funny, or because you’re famous.”
Think about it for a second. You’ll never ever know again if people like you because of who you are, or just pretend to like you because of who you are. So, in a social sense, everything is tinged with a sense of clinical dishonesty. That would do anyone’s head in. But, only if you cared. Tiger's been living in that uncomfortable bubble since he was 19.
Earl and Tiger combined forces and Tiger was able to fulfill his dad’s dreams for him. Not having a normal childhood was nothing more than collateral damage.
Of course, there are worse things than spending your entire life on the golf course but somewhere along the line there’s going to be a missing piece, a door that won’t open when you need it to. You’re trapped in a real life Truman Show, only the thing is, you’ve kind of known all along so you’re not even angry about it.
For the vast majority of his adult life, Tiger simply hasn’t given a tinker’s cuss about what the world thinks of him. That may be changing now out of necessity – a sudden realisation that he need to connect with the world – as he comes to terms with a dwindling talent, but for the most part, Tiger was far too busy breaking necks and cashing cheques, winning golf tournaments and hunting majors to allow his mission to be altered by giving cadence to niceties.
There’s a good reason why Tiger didn’t goof around with the galleries or spend hours signing autographs. He didn’t get anything out of it. He didn’t feel the need to be adored.
And this is part of our problem with the Tiger. Every time he ignores the kids; every time we remember the unpleasantness of SkankGate; every time he turns up to a tournament wearing those chinos, every time he wears that blank expression in his post match interviews and says “w’s” instead of ‘wins’; every time he goes running in military boots; every time he feigns interest in the Ryder Cup; every time he puts on bloody Tiger Jam with bloody Celine Dion and Hootie & The bloody Blow Fish (it’s Kid Bloody Rock this year!); every time he ignores our invitation to visit the GP Open Clubhouse but still manages to drag us out of bed at 5am so we can see his customary 6am Open practice sessions….
Every time, we take it on the chin because at the end of the day we really don’t give a tinker’s cuss what he does, we still just want to see him play incredible, awe-inspiring golf and win. We need to believe.
Besides which, Tiger may not have given us Mr Nice Guy on the fairways, but has given us something way more important. He’s given us ownership of an era in which he existed. Without him golf would simply be something we all love. With him, it is bigger and more important than we could ever have imagined. None of us know what it’s like to be Tiger Woods, nor how much his indiscretions were or weren’t the inevitable reaction to a lifetime of brutal commitment and fierce, uncompromising planning. Maybe he just went bonkers for a bit. Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing was 100% wrong but he all really didn’t care about anyone else.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. What we do know, and all we should care about, is that the result of how Tiger was built means that golf is now reaching all four corners of the globe. The result of Tiger is that attendances and viewing figures for golf tournaments are 50% higher when he plays. The result of Tiger is that GolfPunk exists and we all get paid to do what we love.
At the end of the day, what do you want from this guy? Do you want him to tell you all about how sad his marriage breakdown was for him over a couple of pints? Or do you want him to beat Jack’s record and be able to say: “I saw it happen!”?
Do you want him to stand around for hours signing autographs to make an avaricious tribe of youngsters ‘happy’? Or do you want to be able to say you saw the greatest sportsman ever make unrepeatable history? Do you want him to go all gooey-eyed after his round and jazz-hand his way through his post-match interviews? Or do you want to see Jack walk onto the green at Augusta in four years time and embrace Tiger and say: “I knew you could do it.”?
Tiger was built like he is for one reason alone, to win. It’s time for everyone to stop bleating about what he isn’t and celebrate what he is: The greatest sportsman we are ever likely to see. Mind you, he did make me pay for that Mexican...