Immerse yourself in this Chronicles Unseen long-form article, the first of a new series.
For Tiger Woods, there is one relationship that may be used to define his life both on and off the golf course better than any other. That relationship, most vividly and evocatively seen at The Open, is between the mentor and the mentee.
Naturally, Woods' path to golfing immortality has involved a great deal more than simply guidance and support. It has comprised dedication, mental fortitude, determination and above all, supreme skill. Yet the bond Woods has shared in as both a mentor and a mentee has proved as strong and as valuable as any amount of time spent on the course.
Woods’ first experiences with this relationship were with his father. Earl Woods, a former Lieutenant Colonel who served 20 years in the United States Army, taught his son the value of being open, and of seeing eye-to-eye, from an early age.
“He would talk eye-to-eye,” Woods said. “I’d sit in a chair or I’d lay in bed with him or sit on the side, so we were always at eye level. He always wanted to make sure it was eye-level, or roundabouts. He’d never, ever want to talk down to his son. So we communicated and that openness and that communication is something I strive to do with my kids.”
Whilst many would suspect Tiger’s father to be the family disciplinarian given his military background, it was in fact his mother, Kultida, who would lay down the law and inspire Tiger’s famed killer instinct. As Woods says, “There was nothing remotely grey in her decision making, in her approach to raising me. It was either yes or no, but there were no maybes.”
Woods’ father, then, gave an element of wiggle room to a young Tiger. “My dad, my pops,” Woods said, “could wear three different hats. He was not only my father, but also one of my best friends. He was a mentor, a guider, a leader. And then eventually he ended up being the follower with the foundation.”
Earl would coach Tiger in his formative years, fostering his competitive edge, natural talent and thirst for tournament play that few athletes have ever matched. That nurtured spirit pushed Tiger to remarkable heights as a junior, winning six Junior World Golf Championship titles.
“I used to be so fired up to play tournament golf as a junior that I’d sit there and bob around, just couldn’t stand still,” Woods said. “I wanted to go. ‘Let’s go. Let’s get this fight on.’”
It was then that the young phenom began his fascination with The Open. “It first came to my attention around 10, 11, 12,” Woods said. “Just seeing a totally different style of golf. I had never seen that before. It was fascinating to watch but once I got the first chance to play it I fell in love with it.”
The gifted youngster continued to shatter records year after year. After winning the US Amateur Championship in 1994, Woods made his debut in The Open at the home of golf, St Andrews, in 1995. For those who believe in fate, little more evidence is needed to suggest Woods was destined for greatness.
Still, as the California native’s aptitude for playing the game around the Old Course would soon become apparent to spectators and fans, it was not immediately so to a young Tiger. The layout would quickly become his favourite course, but its charms were not so endearing during his first playing of the historic links.
“I said, ‘why the hell do they have these bunkers here for? They’re useless, it doesn’t make any sense for them to put them right here,’” Woods stated, after playing his first round almost exclusively into the wind. “The wind changes and, ‘Oh, yeah. They’re in the perfect spot.”
Tiger’s capacity to learn and adapt saw the then-19-year-old make the cut despite playing on the wrong side of the draw. These qualities also enabled Woods to make the most of his time with fellow competitors, in particular a two-time major champion and one of the best players in the world.
“I got a chance to play with Bernhard Langer,” Woods said. “We’re playing 14, and it was howling in our face, where the three bunkers on the left-hand side were now in play. I never had seen them, because I’d always been down the little wall on the right. It was blowing so hard and all these bunkers are in play.”
“Bernhard took it into, I believe it was the fifth fairway, and I was just shocked. I just couldn’t believe how far left he went. He went into another fairway and then hit it on the green and made (a) two-putt par. I had never even considered that option before. That’s when I realised, this golf course can present so many different ways to play it. You have to open up your mind to it.”
These lessons Woods learned stood him in good stead not just for St Andrews in future years, where he would twice win golf’s original major, but for links golf in general. As Woods began to learn from colleagues like Langer, and his close friend Mark O’Meara, his game continued to improve in all conditions.
Off the back of two straight US Amateur titles, Woods’ incredible record before even turning professional improved further with a Silver Medal at The 125th Open Championship in 1996.
In finishing T22 at Royal Lytham & St Annes, Woods’ sixth and final major as an amateur would also be his finest. As Woods received his Silver Medal during the ceremony, the words spoken at the ceremony would ring long and true in his ears.
“I was on the 18th green when Tom (Lehman) was presented with the trophy,” Tiger said. “Champion Golfer of The Year, it sings a certain tone in your head that I’d never heard before. That’s something that I will never, ever forget, feeling that on that green. Getting my little Medal and then having Tom receive the trophy.”
The man who would speak these words for all three of Woods’ Open victories would become both Tiger’s friend and mentor over the coming years. Peter Dawson, the Chief Executive of The R&A for 16 years from 1999, played a large part in the young phenom’s appreciation of the history of the game.
Woods himself believes he didn’t understand the historical significance of The Open until he first played in it. Through visiting the British Golf Museum adjacent to the first tee at St Andrews, and with the guidance of Dawson, the gravity of the event Woods would eventually conquer thrice over began to sink in.
“I’ve got to know Peter Dawson really well over the years and we have these history talks every now and again,” Woods said. “To me that’s a lot of fun, and to me going back in history and looking at it, analysing it and especially learning how the game was so different and how they played so dramatically differently. (Peter) is such an incredible leader, and a person I can consult with and talk to on so many different levels.”
Just a month after receiving the Silver Medal in 1996, Woods would win his third straight US Amateur title and subsequently turn pro. The next major championship the precocious talent played was the 1997 Masters, which he won by 12 strokes in front of his mother and father.
In June of that year, Woods became the World Number One golfer. Astonishingly, returning to The 126th Open at Royal Troon less than 12 months after winning the Silver Medal, Woods had become a record-breaking, transcendent figure in golf, and the best player in the game.
While Royal Troon in 1997 yielded just a T24 finish for Woods, The 127th Open at Royal Birkdale proved Woods’ first legitimate opportunity to win the Claret Jug. Hearing the utterance of the immortal words Tiger had been dreaming of for years seemed tantalisingly close.
Yet Tiger finished agonisingly short of his goal, with a brilliant Sunday 66 that would soon become his trademark. Despite finishing with birdies on his last two holes, Woods’ one-over-par total left him one shy of a play-off. The experience again gave Tiger more ammunition with which to fight the elements in future years.
“I remember that 1998 Open, how hard it was,” he said. “I’ve never experienced wind like that before. We had a wind delay. My ball was moving on the 10th hole and an official called it in, and said, ‘We’re going to have a wind stoppage’. I’d never had a wind stoppage before.”
The eventual winner at Royal Birkdale, O’Meara, again embraced the relationship Woods has cherished throughout his life. Early in Tiger’s career, O’Meara and Woods became great friends and learned a great deal from one another. Despite O’Meara being nearly twice Woods’ senior at the time, the mentor and the mentee saw eye-to-eye. They even shared putters prior to the week.
“It was funny because back in those days I had switched putters to my buddy Mark’s back-up putter,” Woods recalled. “I felt I was putting well with it so I said, ‘I’m just going to go with it, I’m putting well at home’.”
“We were playing the Grand Cypress New Course, it’s some kind of replica of St Andrews but down in Florida. Well, I shot 63 and lost money to Mark that day. I think he shot 61 or 62 and I said, ‘Let me borrow your back-up putter. Let me try it’. I tried it and I putted great with it.”
“So I take it over to The Open and we get on a plane afterwards headed up to Scandinavia. We were to play a couple of matches, and he put his arm around me and says ‘Hey, do you know why it’s my back-up putter? Because it finished one shot short.’ I almost hit him right there on the spot!”
Although O’Meara teased Tiger in 1998, Woods appreciated the relationship between the two, a bond which inspired and drove both men forward in their careers.
“It was great for us to celebrate as friends,” Woods said, “to have some libations out of the Claret Jug. It was pretty special.”
It didn’t take long for Woods to follow in the footsteps of his good friend. After a second straight top-ten at a brutally tough 128th Open Championship at Carnoustie, Woods returned to the site of his first Open in 2000.
This time, off the back of two wins in his last three majors, the world’s best golfer returned to St Andrews on the verge of history. By becoming Champion Golfer of the Year at the home of golf in 2000, Woods could become only the fifth player, and the youngest in history, to achieve the career grand slam.
Prior to the beginning of the tournament, Peter Dawson offered up a challenge to Woods, one that would further emphasise the history of the Championship and one that Woods would dutifully accept.
“I took out my driver on nine,” Woods said. “It was slightly downwind and I just roasted one on Wednesday, and knocked it on the green, just on the back edge. Peter Dawson says, ‘Hey, I’ve got one for you. Here, hit this.’ He’s got a Percha ball.”
“I played the hole. I hit driver, 4-iron to run around the green. I had just hit driver and ran it to the back edge. Now I understand why these scores are what they were. There’s (an Open) winner at 301, at Hoylake. Those are numbers that we can’t compute, because the game has changed. That ball went nowhere.”
With his modern ball, Woods was imperious in a record-breaking performance, not least in avoiding finding a single bunker throughout the entire event. The 24-year-old romped to an eight-stroke victory, breaking The Open scoring record with a 19-under-par total, which was also the lowest score to par in any major.
As Woods played the last few holes, his mother and some of his closest friends and mentors watched on from inside the ropes.
“It’s hard to explain but St Andrews is so different,” Woods said on the ovation he received in 2000. “You’re looking at all the history. I had some players that I knew really well back in those days who came out and followed me. Mark Calcavecchia, Jeff Sluman and Mark O’Meara all came out and watched probably the last four holes inside the ropes.”
“That’s pretty neat. When your fellow players come out there and are watching you finish ... man, it adds to it. It adds to it, because it’s obviously out of respect and you go out there and you do it.”
O’Meara stood beside Woods’ mother as both watched on to see Tiger finish his tournament. Woods provided a fitting end to a more that fitting story, holing a six-foot putt on the last green to break many of golf’s most cherished records at its most cherished venue.
As Peter Dawson called Woods’ name just 10 minutes later, those who had been so important to him throughout his life and career were all together in one place. All together, at the home of the sport Tiger was nearer to perfecting than perhaps any other.
Yet one man who was not by the 18th green in 2000, and the most important man to Woods, was Tiger’s father. Earl Woods was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998 and could not attend events as regularly as he liked.
Instead, as Tiger grew more and more successful in the world of golf and business, Earl began to take on the role of the “follower”, as Tiger himself said.
Earl would watch his son play when he could, but after providing his son with teachings and lessons from an early age, he allowed Tiger to live his own life and make his own decisions. One of those decisions, after a great tragedy, gave Woods Jr. some perspective and brought the pair even closer together.
“After 9/11 happened,” Tiger said, “I was in St Louis playing Bellerive and I drove all the way home to Orlando on the 13th November. I said, ‘If I had died in that accident what would we have as a foundation?’. Okay, so what, I hit a few balls. I may have won some tournaments, big deal. I hadn’t really made an impact on anybody.”
The TGR Foundation was set up in 1996, but it wasn’t until 2001 that Tiger made significant changes to the charity. His father Earl had a huge part to play in that change.
“It was pretty ambiguous when we first did it (before).” Tiger said. “We did junior golf clinics but it had no real character until I decided to get more involved in what direction I wanted to take this foundation and what direction we were going.”
“So, I came up with an idea probably a week (after 9/11) about having a learning centre. I sat my dad down. I said, ‘Hey, I’ve had this idea. You know I’m a big picture guy and you’re better at the details than I am. I have this big picture of having a learning centre where kids can call it their own. They have full ownership of it. Dad, that’s the directive’.”
“He said ‘Yes Sir’, and all of a sudden we’ve got a learning centre at Anaheim, California. Ironically right on the driving range where I played my high school golf.”
“We’ve heard gun fire, we’ve heard burglaries, we saw gang fights. It was just not a great neighbourhood. But everyone treats (the learning centre) as a place that is safe for all people. So, when they go there the kids understand they’re safe. That to me is something I’m proud of.”
As Tiger and Earl shared in the success of the TGR Foundation, with young people not only in Anaheim but across the United States, the changing of the guard became apparent. As Woods gradually took more control of his life and decisions from when he turned professional, Earl’s lessons were taught through Tiger to first the children of Anaheim, and eventually his own children.
In working together, the father and son relationship that Tiger puts down as a major reason for his success in life again created a lasting bond. Not only that of a bond between father and son, but a relationship of love and care that filtered down to youngsters in society, many of whom were as gifted as Woods in other fields but perhaps not endowed with the resources or support to achieve their dreams.
Now, the mentee had become the mentor.
This transition, though long and objectively indistinguishable, was not without its difficulties on the course. At The 131st Open at Muirfield, Woods had a chance heading into the weekend to capture a second career grand slam.
Tiger shot one of the highest rounds of his career, a Saturday 81 in abysmal weather, and went on to finish T28. That round led to what was, at the time, his longest winless run in majors.
Returning to The 134th Open Championship in 2005, fittingly held at St Andrews, Woods was back to winning ways. A victory at The Masters earlier in the year with another iconic Tiger moment on the 16th hole had seen to that.
It seemed then, as has so often been the case in the career of one of the greatest golfers of all time, that the stars were beginning to realign.
That they did, as Woods again showed why St Andrews is his favourite course in the world. The 29 year-old won by five shots with a 14-under-par total, ahead of home favourite Colin Montgomerie.
The victory was Woods’ second Open Championship success and his second career grand slam, both accomplished on the same Old Course. As Peter Dawson again called Woods name on the 18th green at the home of golf, the sense of déjà vu could not have been stronger.
In some ways that déjà vu wasn’t always positive, as Tiger’s father was again struggling with his health, which deteriorated early the next year. Earl sadly passed away in May of 2006, and Tiger struggled to come to terms with the loss.
“I didn’t play again until the US Open and (I) missed the cut miserably,” Woods said. “That was tough, because I was thinking, ‘God, one I hadn’t played, and two, if I do play how am I going to handle Sunday. I think I was four over par after two (holes), and that was over.”
Coming into Royal Liverpool in 2006 however, Woods felt he had grieved, and was ready to return to major championship golf. He felt ready, and he felt calm.
“I felt so still, like everything inside me was still and calm. I went out there and I played great. Everyone was jockeying for position but I just felt, ‘Hey, just keep playing. It’s there. Just don’t get out of this, whatever I’m in right now. Don’t come out of it. Just stay in it.’”
Tiger stayed in that zone for all four rounds, and held on to finish 18-under-par, recording a two-shot victory over Chris DiMarco. As soon as Woods holed out on the 72nd hole, the feeling of calm gave way to a sea of emotions that the great man simply wasn’t used to.
“I had won and Stevie (Williams) said something to me, ‘Without your Pops, you’ve kept calm all day.’ Woods recalled. “It kind of hit me all of a sudden, that he’s not here anymore. I can’t share this Claret Jug with him anymore and I just lost it, crying on Steve. I’m not a crier. I’m far from a crier. I can count on my hands how many times I’ve cried in my life.
“I just couldn’t imagine not being able to share a moment like that, a moment I had trained basically my whole life for. I could never share it with the one person who helped me the most achieve my goals and aspirations in the game of golf. It was tough, it was a really tough night.”
The 135th Open at Hoylake was Woods’ most recent win in golf’s original major. Continued success elsewhere in the game lasted for three more years, but Woods soon ran into problems off the course in 2009.
In addition to well-documented personal issues, consistent back injuries would blight Woods’ career for a number of years and continue to linger over his golf to this day.
Yet after failing to register a major top-15 in five years since the 142nd Open Championship, Woods returned to playing regular competitive golf and contended for The 147th Open at Carnoustie in 2018, sparking a resurgence in the now 44-year-old’s career.
With a new lease of life, and two young children at the centre of his world, Woods is embracing his changed role as a mentor. Tiger is keen to ensure the lessons he has learnt from his mother, father and those who have mentored him, are passed on to his daughter, Sam, and his son, Charlie.
“I think it’s very important for them to feel safe enough to say whatever is bothering them and let’s figure it out as a team. They’re not alone, and I think that is something that I’m really trying to develop and foster in my kids, because without that type of relationship with my dad, I don’t think I would have ever achieved what I’ve been able to achieve in my life.”
Now, after winning the 2019 Masters with both his mother and children in attendance, and breaking the all-time record for PGA Tour wins, Woods is not done inspiring new generations both within his family and across the globe.
“I’m just now feeling the ripple effect,” Woods said, regarding his impact on young golfers. “When I was doing it at the very beginning, I was one of the first ones to ever be in a gym. I brought a sense of athleticism to the game, because I had to. I had to lift to run track and cross country. I thought I was fast until I ran against guys who were really fast.
“I had to always lift and get stronger to compete in my other sports I played growing up, I just carried over to golf. Now the ripple effect is I’m getting guys who are now on Tour, their first recollection is me winning the Masters in ‘97.
“So I’m getting guys like Jordan Spieth. Patrick Reed is one. (Ryo) Ishikawa’s another one. You’re getting guys of that age where they remember my first one and that’s what inspired them to play harder, and play more.”
That ripple effect will last for years to come after Woods’ recent success, and while he may be closer to the end of his career than its infancy, his relationship between the mentor and the mentee is as strong as ever. Woods just happens to be the former now, as opposed to the latter.
As for golf, and as for The Open, does Woods still believe he can hold the Claret Jug again?
"Absolutely" he said. "Absolutely."