Greatness is more often packaged in humility than in arrogance. It is more often driven by gratitude than by pride or ego. It is always accompanied by an aura that repels doubters, embraces believers and converts all but the most dogged dissenters.
The Rev. Billy Graham, the evangelist, has that aura. I caddied for him several times back in North Carolina when $5 for a single loop meant a head start on school clothing. I swear a single pat on my baby Afro with his hand warmed my entire body.
Michael Jordan has it, too. When, as a young sports editor, I interviewed him for a feature story after North Carolina's national basketball championship in 1982, I was amazed at how the freshman flash commanded a cool but powerful presence -- a foreshadowing of the exceptional basketball player/marketing icon he would become.
|Ten Years of Tiger|
|This week marks the 10-year anniversary of Tiger Woods' professional debut. ESPN.com looks back on the last decade of his life -- and what the future might hold -- in this five-part series.|
I fully expected Tiger Woods to have that aura, too, when the editors at Golf World dispatched me to Stanford for an interview with the new U.S. Amateur champ and leading candidate for the magazine's Man of the Year honor. He was punctual, arriving at the Stanford golf course in typical college student-athlete attire -- shorts, polo shirt and sleep peering from the corners of those huge peepers. He was a world-class sleeper back then, not the rise-at-dawn physical fitness buff we all know now.
He greeted me warmly but with a little trepidation. Sure enough, the aura was unmistakable even through his businesslike countenance reserved for strangers and final-round opponents. I recall fumbling for my list of questions like a cub reporter on his first big assignment. Tiger dug into a four-inch stack of pancakes, chased them with orange juice and looked up only to question one of my queries. "What do you mean by that?" he said, departing from his mostly one-word answers that were driving me crazy. Even the most skillful writer would have trouble crafting a feature story from "yes" and "no" responses. Finally, he flashed that now-world-famous smile as if he'd approved of a hacker's persistence after a handful of whiffs and provided thoughtful answers from that point on.
When we finished the interview, I followed Tiger to the practice range, where he showed off his repertoire of golf shots. "Write a good story," he said, smiling, as I shook his hand and departed for the airport. His shot-making had been really impressive, but it wasn't until his first Masters in the spring of '95 that I fully appreciated the magnitude of his gifts and potential destiny.
My primary assignment at Augusta was to shepherd Tiger through a rookie's diary, which meant I tracked him everywhere except the crow's nest. What I learned early on was that, with all his fame, he was still a kid at heart who loved doing kid things. He had a passion for video games and cartoons. His needle was pretty sharp for friends and family, too. Still is. My receding hairline and colorful attire were fair game. There probably never has been a more fun-loving practical joker outside the ropes. Inside them, though, is another matter.
As you would think, Tiger had his game face on for the first round of the '95 Masters. The confident swagger was staggered slightly when, on the first hole, his birdie putt from 20 feet rolled all the way off the green. A 10-footer salvaged bogey, but his ego clearly had been bruised. By the fifth hole, he had done nothing extraordinary except launch a couple of big drives that yielded gasps from the gallery but little else. On the long, par-4 fifth, though, he did something that revealed more to me about Tiger the golfer and person than anything before or since.
After snap-hooking his drive into a precarious lie where massive pines blocked his approach to one of the most undulating greens on the course, Tiger weighed his options. The cautious play would have been a pitchout, but he must have seen a small opening and decided the risk was worth it. He took a couple of practice swings with a midiron, then cleanly struck a shoulder-high shot that never disturbed a pine needle. The ball barely rolled onto the green, and from there, Tiger two-putted for par.
In addition to aura, great ones possess uncommon vision -- a mind's eye that sees things differently -- and the ability to consistently execute the seemingly impossible. Through the years, I've seen Tiger's Houdini act so many times it should be in syndication. I've also witnessed his incredible willpower, resiliency and belief in himself -- all traits of the great ones. However, his maturation has not been without trials.
Two knee operations and as many swing overhauls punctuated Tiger's human frailty. When you swing as hard as Tiger does, all body parts are susceptible to wearing out. A less violent pass prescribed by coach Hank Haney should increase his longevity. He also has learned to dink a course into submission rather than overpowering it, as he proved in the British Open at Hoylake -- a display of the patience forever prominent in his arsenal.
That kind of strategy is reminiscent of the great Ben Hogan, whose analytical prowess took into account every conceivable angle of attack. The ability to outthink opponents and course supers is as much a part of Tiger's growing ingenuity as his ability to hit five clubs exactly the same distance. Mental superiority -- some of it gleaned through experience -- is perhaps his biggest edge.
Earl Woods, mentor and best friend to his son, used to say Tiger would instinctively and intuitively know when to change courses. He was taught to be his own man, comfortable in his own skin, independent of others' expectations and demands. His goals are guarded. Outside the ropes, so are his emotions, at least in public.
When Earl died in May, Tiger's maturation process shifted to warp speed. Admittedly, he internalized his hurt and was able to release those pent-up feelings only after holing the final putt at Hoylake. Just as he was trained to do with his golf game, Tiger turned weakness into strength and won over the multitude, which felt the sincerity of his pain.
Earl also used to say his son had no comfort zone. Translation: Tiger is not afraid to reach his full potential. He embraces the challenge, whether it's bungee jumping off a cliff in New Zealand with caddie and sidekick Steve Williams, or taking it deeper than anyone else in a birdiefest disguised as the PGA Championship at Medinah. Nor is he afraid to give of himself, especially when it comes to enhancing the lives of youth.
Finally, Earl's encouraging words to Tiger -- "let the legend grow" -- continue to resonate as Tiger stalks every record the game holds sacred and unattainable. That his aura continues to expand, too, is a natural phenomenon. Just like the man himself.
Pete McDaniel is a senior writer for Golf Digest magazine.