New York Daily News – Jun 14, 2006 – Rich Cimini – There’s not a soul on earth who can accurately predict the emotions that will grip Tiger Woods this weekend as his competes in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The recent death of his father could steel his legendary determination – or just plain steal it.
Either way, it’s going to be dramatic, especially if Woods is in contention on Sunday – Father’s Day. There’s something about fathers and sons and golf that can turn stoics into mushy romantics, and even a robo-golfer such as Woods will feel the tug in his heart.
It happens to the best of them.
A year ago, a teary-eyed Jack Nicklaus, in the midst of his final Masters appearance, was moved to recall the last words of his late father. Turning to his son at Augusta, Nicklaus said, “Don’t think it hasn’t been charming” – the same thing a cancer-stricken Charlie Nicklaus told his family as he was wheeled into surgery more than 30 years ago.
At the PGA Championship in 1997, Davis Love III was on the verge of wrapping up his first major title when he looked to the heavens and saw a rainbow, so vivid that it looked like it was painted across the sky. It reminded him of his late father and teacher, Davis Love Jr., a golf pro who had died nine years earlier in a plane crash.
That rainbow, by the way, happened over Winged Foot.
Maybe there will be more magic in the air this week at the breathtaking, but diabolical course in Westchester. This much is certain: Woods’ gallery will be filled with amateur psychologists, everybody trying to get inside his head.
“Tiger is going to be in the same boat as me,” Love says. “Every time he plays golf, he’ll think of his father. That’s not going to change. It’s going to be hard for a while, but it’ll also be a positive for him down the road.”
It’s not farfetched to say that, on several levels, this will be the most difficult challenge in Woods’ career. Think about it: He hasn’t played a competitive round in nine weeks (the longest layoff of his career), his perceived advantage over top rival Phil Mickelson is all but gone and he’s coping with the burden of having buried his father only five weeks ago.
Earl Woods died at 74 after a lengthy battle with cancer, and those with firsthand knowledge of their relationship say it transcended the typical father-son bond.
“I’ve never had to experience anything in life like this and never had a nine-week layoff before, so we’ll just have to wait and see,” Woods said last week on his Website, adding that he’ll be thinking of his dad, especially on Father’s Day. “Hopefully, my game will be sharp. No matter what happens, it won’t be from lack of effort on my part.”
Says Woods’ former coach, Butch Harmon, one of the few who walked in Tiger’s inner circle, “Earl and Tiger were so close. They were more than father and son. Earl was Tiger’s best friend, he was his mentor, he was his confidant.”
Says Love: “He made Tiger believe, and I think that’s the sign of a great motivator and a great teacher . . . That will always stay with him.”
Woods learned almost everything about golf from his father, who introduced Tiger to the game soon after he started walking. The old Marine wasn’t an overbearing, Little-League father, but he instilled mental toughness in his son.
Anybody who wondered about the closeness of their relationship saw it in that now-famous embrace at the Masters in 1997, when a victorious Tiger walked off the 72nd hole and into great big arms of his proud father – a forever hug.
Earl’s deteriorating health prevented him from attending tournaments in recent years, but he was always a phone call away.
Dr. John F. Murray, a Florida-based sports psychologist who works with golfers, believes there’s “no way to escape the devastating, understandable impact” that Earl’s death will have on Tiger. But hold the pity party; he expects the world’s top-ranked player to rebound with a vengeance.
“Golf requires the management of emotions . . . and Tiger is one of the greatest in terms of managing emotions,” Murray says. “If anyone can deal with the death of a father, it’s going to be Tiger. He’ll be playing more for his dad. It’ll be an inspiration for him. The tears have flowed, and probably will for a while, but he’ll be okay.”
According to Murray, Woods may benefit from a sense of closure, knowing that his father’s suffering is over. It’s such a personal matter, coping with the loss of a loved one, that it’s difficult to predict how someone will react, especially a premier athlete in the crucible of a world-class competition.
Nicklaus lost his father when he was 30, Tiger’s age, so he can relate. At the time, 1970, Nicklaus was mired in the longest major- championship drought of his career. He admittedly had become sloppy with his game, taking things for granted. His father’s death made him refocus. That summer, he won the British Open.
The Golden Bear said his father “would’ve kicked me in the rear end” if he had allowed the slump to continue. Asked about Woods, Nicklaus smiles and says, “You can’t say he needs to be kicked in the rear end.
“Everybody reacts differently to different things,” he adds. “It would be a pure guess on my part what his reaction will be.”
At a time such as this, Woods may rely on his father’s wisdom more than ever, according to his former coach.
“Earl groomed Tiger to handle any situation, and this is another one of those situations in life you have to handle,” Harmon says. “Will he get over it? No, you never get over that. But will he be fine? Yes, he will. I actually think it’s going to make him stronger. If you think that the last round of the Open is on Father’s Day, the extra amount of motivation for Tiger will be phenomenal.”
Ah, yes, but there other factors to consider, such as the long layoff – the Tiger Pause, so to speak. His last competitive shot was a putt on the 72nd hole of the Masters in April.
Two weeks ago, Woods skipped The Memorial, traditionally his final tune up for the Open, fueling more speculation about the current state of his game.
“I’m working my butt off to get ready,” Woods said recently on his Web site.
That preparation included a practice round at Winged Foot, where he worked on accuracy off the tee and distance control with his irons. The narrow fairways and heavy rough will make it difficult for the hottest, most active players, let alone somebody who hasn’t competed in nine weeks. Winged Foot isn’t an ideal place to chip off rust.
In 2003, Woods disproved that theory, returning from a two-month layoff after knee surgery to win the Buick Invitational. But that was Torrey Pines, this is the Open, which presents the most demanding test in golf.
Woods doesn’t have much of a track record at Winged Foot, having played there only once – a 29th-place finish in the 1997 PGA. He stumbled with a final-round 75 on a course that is playing much tougher these days, with longer holes and higher rough.
“I don’t think the layoff is going to hurt him at all because I know him,” Harmon says. “He’s been working hard on his game. I know how he is.
“I think the fact that Mickelson will probably be the favorite – and should be – motivated Tiger even more,” Harmon says. “So I think he’s going to be fine. I think he’ll come back stronger than he was.”
Indeed, Woods could play the underdog card, a rarity. That, combined with the swell of emotion from his father’s death, will make for great theater. If Woods can capture his 11th major on this course, under these circumstances, it would be an instant classic.
Somewhere over Davis Love’s rainbow, Earl Woods will be smiling.
Sidebar: Father figures
The U.S. Open’s traditional Fathers’ Day finish brings to mind these great father-and-child moments:
1. Jack & son
A 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus wins the 1986 Masters with his 24- year-old son, Jackie, on the bag. Twelve years earlier, the death of Jack’s father, Charlie, makes him rededicate himself and win the British Open.
2. The hug
Earl Woods hits balls into his practice net in the garage in Cypress, Calif., as his infant son Tiger watches him from his high hair. In 1997, Tiger comes off the 18th green at Augusta after winning the 1997 Masters and into the arms of his proud father.
3. The rainbow
A rainbow appears over the 18th green at Winged Foot as Davis Love III wraps up the 1997 PGA Championship, a win especially significant because his late father, Davis II, killed tragically in a plane crash when Davis III was young, had been a PGA club professional.
4. Old & Young Tom
The first British Opens are dominated first by Old Tom Morris and then by his son, Young Tom. Together, they win eight of the first 12 championships before Young Tom died on Christmas Day, 1875, a few months after his wife and infant son died during childbirth.
5. Double Duval
David Duval wins the 1999 Players Championship on the same day his father, Bob, wins the Emerald Coast Classic Senior Tour event.
6. Oh, happy day
Domingo Lopez, owner of a New Mexico auto repair shop, gives his 8-year-old daughter, Nancy, a sawed-off club and encourages her to “play happy.”
7. Just like in the backyard
In San Diego, Phil Mickelson Sr. builds a backyard putting green and bunker for his young son, Phil. In 2005, Mickelson wins the PGA with the same kind of shot he perfected, back then.
8. Has to be Haas & Haas
In 2003 at Olympia Fields, Jay and Bill Haas become the sixth father and son to play in the same U.S. Open and again at Shinnecock Hills a year later, where they both make the cut. Jay finishes tied for ninth and Bill ties for 40th.
9. Once in a lifetime
Gene Sarazen’s father, an immigrant from Italy, watches from the street as his son plays the 10th hole at Pelham Manor en route to his famous win over Walter Hagen at the 1923 PGA. It is the only time he sees his son play golf.
10. Wie believe
B.J. Wie begins to coach his daughter, Michelle, 4. Even in the old videos, the two always seemed to be arguing, but there is no denying how he has laid out her career.
Caption: Tiger Woods will do something tomorrow that he’s never done before – play in a major without his father being alive.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.