The football genius who's crazy for golf
Bill Walsh earned the nickname "Genius" for his innovative West Coast offenses while coaching the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s. His success led to induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
While football was his life, Walsh developed a passion for golf. He owns a home on the Monterey Peninsula in California and loves playing.
"Anybody who has seen golf -- it's the most skilled or athletic sports event," he said. "There is the incredibly challenging mental aspect, and you spend tedious, long hours practicing."
In 1992, when Walsh returned to coaching at Stanford University, he was overseeing a spring practice one afternoon and called me over. I was covering the team for a local newspaper and had played competitive golf since I was a kid.
"Sure," I said. "When?"
"Now," Walsh said.
He wasn't kidding. Walsh turned practice over to an assistant and led me to his car, and we made a quick trip to the Stanford driving range.
"I got invited to play Cypress Point this weekend," he said of the famed Pebble Beach layout. "But I have the shanks."
A natural left-hander and 16-handicapper, Walsh pulled out a 7-iron and flared 10 straight shots low-left. It was painful to watch.
"Slow down," I said. "And remember, a shank is the closest thing there is to a perfect shot in golf."
"REALLY?" he said.
"Absolutely," I replied, trying to reassure him.
I adjusted his alignment, got him to take the club back straighter, and told him to keep his head down. A few minutes later, the shanks disappeared.
"Wow!" Walsh said. "I can't thank you enough."
The next week at practice, I couldn't wait to see him.
"How was Cypress Point?" I asked.
"Beautiful," he said. "What a place."
"How did you play?" I asked cautiously.
"Terrible," he said. "I got the shanks again."
So much for my career as a golf instructor.
As poorly as he played, Walsh had a wonderful time. He made several pars and couldn't wait to return.
Fast-forward to the fall of 1994. Walsh was sitting in his office one day when a skinny freshman walked into his office.
"Hi, Mr. Walsh," he said. "It's great to meet you. I'm Tiger Woods."
They bonded instantly.
"I felt sort of privileged to meet him," Walsh said. "He wanted to know a lot about football. After a while, we talked about other things like politics and Stanford. When you spoke with him, even at 19, he was a mature adult. He almost conversed better with adults."
Woods remembers the first meeting vividly.
"I just wanted to meet him," Woods said. "He was the great Bill Walsh of the 49ers. He said, 'Sit down.' So I did. He said, 'Come back any time you want and we can talk.' It was the start of a great friendship."
They spoke often, though not as much as Walsh would have liked.
"He came by more than I could see him," he said.
Walsh made a big impression on Woods.
"He was my mentor," Woods said. "That's 100 percent, bona fide truth."
Walsh has coached many great athletes, including Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young, but has never seen a combination of brains and talent like Woods.
"He is an incredible blend of intellect and athletic ability, combined with zeal and self-confidence," Walsh said. "I suspect he could have competed in other sports. He has intellectual capacity that surpasses anybody I've met in sports."
At Woods' invitation, Walsh attended the grand opening of the $25 million Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif., in February 2006 and the two talked privately after the ceremony. A signed poster from Woods hangs behind Walsh's desk in his office at Stanford, where he works as a special assistant to the athletic director.
Walsh, 75, hasn't played much golf lately. He's battling leukemia and spends about half his week receiving treatment at Stanford. Still, he remains positive and recently played golf with his son, Craig.
"It's a great game," Walsh said. "I never had a golf swing until five years ago. Of all the things I want to do, golf is what I'm looking forward to the most."
Mark Soltau is the editor of TigerWoods.com and a contributing editor for Golf Digest.