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Thursday, June 20, 2002
Updated: June 21, 1:49 PM ET
Lightning in a baby bottle

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

My very good friend, former Sports Illustrated writer, editor and author Bob Creamer, once wrote of Joe DiMaggio and his hitting streak:

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods gives a few lucky kids a hand with their golf game.
"Whenever anyone does something marvelous, something truly admirable and endearing, other human beings feel a sense of pride and exultation. We are pleased that someone human, someone who eats and breathes like us, who has arms and legs and ears and eyes like us, has done this splendid thing. It gives us a vicarious sense of accomplishment and even self-satisfaction. We did that. When we applaud DiMaggio, we are applauding ourselves ..."

Creamer continues the theme today, in a note he sent to me for some reason. Don't know why. Just because I wrote to him first. I think I must have gotten on his nerves back at the Illy or something, and he wants revenge; anyway, he never fails to reply.

"And Tiger even more so, RW. When I have trouble falling asleep at night I lull myself to a peaceful state by dreaming about sports. I make up an athlete in this sport or that, and move him along. Some of them aren't all that good but are part of the scene. I suppose all are alter egos of me, doing some things, challenging situations, winning. Tiger is the daydream of daydreams, what a boy of 79 daydreams of doing ..."

***** ***** *****

The words rattled around in my brain as I went about my business. Pulled into the Tiger Vortex, just like you; for me, the Vortex was whipping up rain Tuesday at Palm and Magnolia Golf Courses on Disney World grounds in Orlando.

Less than 48 hours, after scorching the field at the Open, there Tiger was, giving a clinic to 75 kids from Newark, Fort Worth, Buffalo, Orlando and Philly; 3,000 underprivileged Florida kids watched him in an exhibition. Kids weren't alone, either, not by a long shot. From eight to 80, from white, brown, black, red to whatever, they queued up for an audience with El Tigre.

On the tee at No. 11 at the Palm, 14 golfers from ages 8-14 teed it up and bombed away - they could hit it, too. (Novices were at the Magnolia course taking lessons from other pros; Tiger needs something to work with). He appeared from a trailer in yellow Polo and black pants, began spending five to 10 minutes with each golfer -- nobody had to tell him how long, he had a feel for how long to stay to make each one feel like Tiger wasn't blowing 'em off, yet not so long as to delay the proceedings. Just has a feel.

Now if you can imagine it, being a kid again, and a golfer, not a bad golfer; you're standing there, hitting a bucket, and it's already surreal enough that you're even here, flown into Disney World, hooked up with Tiger gear, hanging out at the amusement parks, and now hitting balls on this beautifully kept track, in your sweet Tiger gear, ball cap, Polo with logo, khaki shorts, knowing this moment might come, disbelieving it somehow, then, Ulp! There he is, behind you, checking out your swing!

Michael Bailey Jr. keeps calmly hitting 5-irons clean and straight. At 16, he has been playing three years. His father, a football coach, bought his first set of clubs, inspired after watching Tiger. Operative words to remember here are: "Father" and "inspired."

(Now, if you had your dad while growing up, you might miss this part of being sucked up into Tiger Vortex; you might take this part it for granted, have a blind spot, an immunity to it).

James Blackwell couldn't sleep the night before he was so excited. Liam Friedman from Buffalo has a kink, a natural hook. Tiger advises him on how to conquer it. Tiger moves to 14-year-old Gerald Henderson Jr., son of former Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons guard Gerald Henderson, possessor of three NBA championship rings, who now stands behind the ropes taking pictures like any father as Tiger watches G smoke a 4-iron high and clean and straight, 180 yards time and again. G is only 14 but he's also 6-foot-4, with feet like plant beds, size 15, minimum. Has a 2 handicap.

"Good swing!" Tiger says. G smiles, keeps his head down. Tiger chuckles and puts the blade of his iron in front of G's big toe, forcing him to set up further away from the ball. He whispers to G, who smiles like he has never smiled. G seems like he's in heaven, pretty much, or not far from it.

Gerald Henderson Sr., who once made Laker-killing plays for Boston back in '87, got big sig (significant) playoff minutes on a team choked with All-Stars, holds pride in check, in search of a higher ethic: performance.

"Practice more," he says. "That's what I'd like to see G do. In any sport the time you put in it is what you're going to get out of it. G plays football, basketball and golf. Sooner or later, to get serious about it, he'll have to choose one ..." Gerald Sr. shades his eyes. "I have a little problem with the lack of time he puts in but I also have to remember he's only 14. I don't care how much I want it for him. He has to want it. So I let him develop himself, in some ways. I'm trying to let him be a teenager but looking at this 6-4, 190 pound guy with big feet, a broad back -- man, sometimes you forget!

"I'm just a regular father. So I can't tell him anything about golf anymore. But Tiger Woods can. Hey, I can hardly tell him anything about basketball! Now if you tell him, or if Charles Barkley or a high school coach tells him, he'll listen, just because it isn't me. He's at the age where they know everything, and fathers don't know anything anymore. You just have to know to stick around, be around at the right time, when they open back up to you again ..."

***** ***** *****

Tiger reveals himself more in speaking to these young golfers than he ever would in interviews after majors. The kids sit in a semi-circle around him during a cloudburst that has shortened the clinic. It is crowded and tropical inside the tent, built for maybe 40, holding three times that; whenever Tiger shows one hair on his heiney, several dozen cameras and hot-breath media types like moi are there to elbow and claw their way in, barely held at bay by the semi-circle of folding chairs containing the posteriors of the children golfers.

Tiger Woods
After checking out the kids' swings, Woods put on a display at the driving range.
Tiger is preternaturally calm, so it seems to me, as he walks by, following in the footsteps of a Tiger Woods Foundation official. Just outside the tent at his trailer are a strapping bodyguard looking like Jesse Ventura, girlfriend Elin Nordegren (not the one on the Internet, fellas, just so you'll know; she's tiny), and Mark Steinberg, Tiger's sharpie IMG rep, and Cary Mitchell, who tailors Tiger's pants to a T & W.

Tiger is handed a mike as rain pounds on the roof of the tent; we could be Bedouins in here, and Tiger could be Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi in "Lawrence of Arabia," saying at the top of his lungs, "I am a river to my people!"

He is handed a microphone, not for the benefit of the young people, but for us, the media, who also hang on every word, for different reasons. We want his dispensation of our happiness as well as the children do, only in a different way. We need Tiger, need him to give us something they can use; what we can use is more, shall we say, selfish and ultimately exploitive; we need him for our own reps, and paychecks, not for their own education, self-worth, personal value.

So someone tries to give him a wireless mike: "I don't really need this, the kids are right here." The kids cheer, to themselves. They feel special, like they are The Deal. And, for today, they are.

If there was a common complaint from media members about Tiger, it wasn't about Tiger per se, but that their editors or bosses expected them to develop a relationship with Tiger, get stuff nobody else can get from him. The frustration from my brethren in media is understandable. They are not frustrated with Tiger so much as they are frustrated by people who expect them to get Tiger's attention. There's only so much he'll give. Tiger hoards Woods. Do I blame him? Well, in a word, no.

My good friend Jaime Diaz from Golf Digest, once frustrated by it, says he admires him for it, too. I've seen how the media sausage gets made. It ain't very pretty, I can tell you that, and if you get caught up in it, it can be distracting. To a golfer, distraction is death.

"Sometimes the media will use (your openness) against you," Woods says. "You can't really show everybody everything. My closest friends are that for a reason; they are not going to tell everything we do. The media is doing their job, but I also have to keep something of myself, for myself; you have to have a private life you share only with your closest friends. ... Usually the press don't let the facts get in the way of a good story anyway."

The kids laugh at this hoary, clunky cliché. As adults, we can think whatever we want of the Tiger Woods Effect. But the kids are his. Not ours. "The media has a responsibility to report the news, and they are trying to get their own paychecks, and I understand that, and I accept my responsibilities in that way ..."

"How do I prepare for a tournament? Hm. Well. Good question. I'll play nine, practice for two hours, play nine more; as I move closer to the tournament, I'll just play. And eat, and rest well. You have to prepare to even do that ... OK, you visualize your first shot, and then practice hitting that shot, and if it takes five balls to do it right, hit them until it is right; then when it's time to hit the shot in competition, it's familiar to you; you know what you have to do; you don't think about it; you just do it. When you're over a shot, it should be the most important thing in your life for that moment. Nothing else should matter ...

"Nervous? At the beginning of a round, sure. But as you get into the rhythm of playing ... you don't get quite as nervous. Like I told (caddy) Stevie (Williams) walking up 15 at the Open, 'This is what it's all about, this is why I logged all those miles (hitting balls), got in shape, lifted weights, busted my tail. To get here, I'm in this position because this is where I want to be.' In that mindset you don't get quite as nervous."

Later Tiger will say, "Kids may become better players, it would be nice to see them out on the Tour, but that's not why we're doing this, I'd much rather for a person to come up to me and say, 'you changed my life, now I'm a engineer;' or 'I design golf clubs now, I never knew I could do that and be part of the game of golf.' That's kind of what I want to do; producing the greatest golfers in the world -- that's not why we do this.

"This sport is a wonderful teaching aid for kids in life lessons. I've learned a lot just by playing golf, being around adults, when these kids get exposed to that, they become better citizens. If you look at the golfers who play, they're not bad people, are not the guys who go out and create trouble. I think that's great indicator how golf teaches us great life lessons, and kids, if exposed to it, can learn. ... You can learn dedication, pride, perseverance, humility ... you can learn all these things in one round of golf ... in order to be successful you have to follow the rules ... a lot of kids want to bend the rules, and that's not how it should be ... in other sports, you try to get away with as much as you possibly can, but in this sport, you don't get away with anything, you have to take the onus on yourself. I've called shots on myself that have cost me tournaments. That's what our sport is, it's about coming from within ... it's the only sport that can teach that.

"... I'm not always comfortable with being the certain of attention in that (media magnet) way; I want to help the kids as much as possible; only way for me to do that is do the things we do with the foundation; my own personal feelings about (being a media lightning rod) I put aside because I want to help kids, give them a better chance in life; that means more to me than my own petty feelings about dealing with (media) ... or being this great hero. ... I think we have some ideas about how our foundation can spread without me actually being there; my schedule is getting, ha, a little more loaded now, and it's not exactly easy for me to do the things we used to do."

Between cloudbursts, at a podium set up outside for a press conference, Earl Woods threw in his two cents (the same two cents and then some are the ones he put into Tiger, and hit the jackpot).

"We don't want (children) to feel they're nothing, like they're boxed in by our society." As he spoke, I got the impression that once, Earl Woods had felt those bad feelings. "We want to instill in all young people pride, a sense of self, the ability to dream, and dream big, that they had the right to dream, and achieve, and it's up to us to interface with society ..."

***** ***** *****

Young and old, ages 8 to 80, but mostly young, the excited throngs stack up like cordwood into the temporary grandstands around the driving range at the Magnolia course; for a quiet guy who moves stealthily, like a cat, Tiger Woods draws a crowd. Getting a 25 share among all TV sets controlled mainly by adults on a late Sunday afternoon is one thing; but he gets a natural 50 share among his constituency, the young.

Earl Woods
Earl Woods, left, always believed that his son was destined for greatness.
And here they are, the children, boisterous, happy, making that curiously satisfying noise children make when thrown together. No matter what language they speak, it comes out a universal language of Joyful; they have their own ways, signposts, trademarking, their own heroes, their own legends, their own everything, really; and we can't go to where they go, but we can admire and learn from them, if we're smart ... yep, 8 to 80, and in every paint job under the sun.

Earl Woods will speak first. Earl has been sitting in a golf cart waiting for the exhibition to begin; he sits silently, seemingly in an altered state. His job is done. Little Eldrick is now Tiger Woods, just as Earl always believed he could be. He pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights up. Bypass or not, no talking him out of it. It's done.

Stubborn, willfull, maybe given to hyperbole or exaggeration about the potential of his child -- but then again, maybe not. A father. A good dad. Maybe if you've got one, you take it for granted. But there are a lot of us who can't and don't take it for granted, who flat-out admire what Earl did with El Tigre, his son.

I tell him as much. He says, "Yes. I remember you. Good job." Catches me off-guard, brings me up short. Dang! Good dads always do that to me. Don't know why. Maybe because I don't take them for granted. Maybe because I didn't have one. Good dads, they catch my eye. I give them much respect. And as God is my witness, I've tried to be one.

Earl eases out of the golf cart, is introduced, and trudges to the gold tees of the Magnolia driving range, led by his Buddha belly. He takes a mike and speaks to the children-in-spirit of his son, Tiger Woods. "How many of you have been told by your parents that you are special? ... That is truly sad. Parents, you are responsible for that, and there is no excuse, for not telling that child they are special. ... How many of you kids, in the last week, have told your parents 'I love you?' ... Now that's sad too, because every one of you should've raised your hand ... can't tell someone too often that you love them. ... Love is given. Trust and respect and earned ... now, hold hands. That's right, hold hands, and repeat after me. I ... am a person. I will love myself. ... I will respect and love others. ... I can do anything I believe I can do. ... I believe! ... I believe! ... I believe!"

Earl can go no further. He is very emotional and begins to break down with his last "I believe!" It hangs in the heavy air. He trudges away, his face contorted with emotions he can barely control, and could never adequately express. His gait is not dissimilar to Tiger's. Only older. He melts back toward the golf cart and is driven away from the scene, reaching into the pack for one last cigarette. His job is done. He did this.

The children are allowed a few questions before Tiger begins to hit golf balls the way no one else can hit them. One child, in the infinite wisdom of childhood, asks, "How do you handle it, the pressure of all the people looking at you, Tiger?" All those people in the media, all those people in the big galleries, all those people on the course with him, his fellow pros, trying to best him, all those people who want him to be what they want him to be, rather than what he is, all the people watching on TV, all those people at the Western Open in Chicago, or at Muirfield in Scotland, all those people in the whole wide world, his world, how does he handle the pressure from all these people and play his golf ball in such a winning fashion at the same time? Tiger's answer is a witticism worthy of a Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Dorothy Parker, a Chris Rock, a Bill Cosby, or another local legend, a Zora Neale Hurston.

"What people?" Tiger replies.

Says it all, and in two words, doesn't it? If Tiger Woods never says another mouthful, he did then. But talk is cheap and macking is for pimpology. I don't watch athletes for their magnetic wacky chatter. That's what Letterman's for. Tiger doesn't have to say anything; his game does his talking. An author from Texas named Paul Horgan once wrote this: "The good (artists, scientists, craftsmen) studies all forms, including the form of the performing athlete, where energy precisely meets need."

During the rainstorm-shortened exhibition, Tiger makes a joke about how his Dad sometimes hits his golf ball. Tiger takes a full swing, skulls it so the ball pops off the ground, jump-backspins, checks, then rolls two feet forward, in front of Tiger's feet. A masse, done with an iron club and a dimpled ball. What control! As the struck ball does the dance he made it do, Tiger looks downrange, down into the future, shading his eyes, mocking his father, but his every move honoring him at the same time.

As the golf ball spins right there at his feet and he shades his eyes gazing downrange, children laugh. Children like to tease, especially their parents. That is, if they have them.

"Sorry, pop," Tiger says. Pop can't hear now.

But then again, maybe he can. Happy belated Father's Day to all of us in Tiger's New World, living in the Tiger Dynasty. Might as well settle back and enjoy the ride. This man's been built for the long haul. Just like you -- if you're lucky.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."