Earl Woods, R.I.P.

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According to a 1997 biography, “Tiger” (written byJohn Strege, a sportswriter at my paper), Tiger Woods fell in love with golf at the ripe old age of six months. His father Earl, retired from the Army, had taken up golf at 42 and was working hard to improve his game. He built a makeshift driving range in his Cypress, Calif., garage, consisting of a piece of carpet and a net, and faithfully thwacked ball after ball.

Tiger was entranced. He would rather watch his father hit golf balls than eat. At nine months, he crawled out of his high chair, placed a ball on the carpet and, using a club his father had cut down for him, executed a carbon copy of Earl’s swing, placing the ball squarely in the center of the net.

“I was flabbergasted,” Earl said. “I almost fell off my chair. It was the most frightening thing I had ever seen.”

He quickly overcame his fright to begin training the child who has become this generation’s premier golfer, in the process shattering barriers of racial prejudice.

As a few select parents down through the generations could tell you, dealing with a child prodigy is a minefield. Beethoven’s father trained his son but at the same time brutalized him. Mozart’s father did remarkably well so long as Wolfgang was young, but couldn’t handle it when the boy grew older and sought a modicum of independence.

Earl Woods probably made some mistakes along the way, but on the evidence to date he seems to have handled the difficult task as well as anybody. He helped his son focus on his talent, live a reasonably normal childhood, and mature into a young man who combines passion for nurturing and improving his talent with being both a fierce competitor and a thoroughly decent human being.

Nice job.

Earl went on to write three books and become a driving force behind the Tiger Woods Foundation, devoted to inspiring young people to dream big dreams in many fields of endeavor and take steps toward realizing them. He died recently in the family’s Cypress home at 74, after a long bout with prostate cancer.

Tiger is not the only person who will miss him badly.

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