When you are only 14 years old, can consistently drive a golf ball 265 yards and shoot a seven-under-par 63, the whole world is your golf course.
Tiger Woods, who rarely answers to his first name of Eldrick, can do all that and more.
Woods has been one of the most precocious golfers in the world since the day when he was not yet 3 years old and he shot a 48 on the old back nine of the Navy Golf Course in Cypress.
“I teed the ball up for him on all his shots, but he holed out every putt,” his father Earl recalls proudly.
This earned Tiger a personal appearance on the Mike Douglas Show, where he demonstrated his swing and took part in a putting contest with Bob Hope.
“I don’t remember anything that happened, except that I was there,” Tiger said while discussing his remarkable career surrounded by trophies in the living room of the Woods’ home in Cypress.
When you’re only 14, 12 years ago is a long time to remember.
The Legend of the Tiger has grown faster than he has. Woods stands 5-feet-9 and weighs 120 pounds, but that was big enough to enable him to hit a 310-yard drive during a long-driving contest last week in Texas.
“I’ve always been long (off the tee),” he said matter-of-factly. “I get lots of leverage, I have flat muscles like a fighter. In a few years, when I fill out, I expect to average 300 yards and hit it like Greg Norman.”
He has always enjoyed hitting the long ball.
When Tiger was 10, barely 4-9 and weighing 81 pounds, he had already won two Junior World 10-and-under championships in San Diego. But he didn’t enjoy having to play on the short Presidio Hills course, where the longest hole is 110 yards.
“Let’s go to a big course, where I can hit some woods,” he said after finishing the tournament.
Woods, who won’t be 15 until Dec. 30, plays to a plus-two handicap at the Navy course, which means that his average score is a two-under-par 70 from the back tees on the 6,820-yard course. The course has a rating of 73.5 and a slope of 129, largely because water comes into play on 14 of the 18 holes.
“What Tiger has done is remarkable, truly remarkable,” said Dave Smith, head pro at the course. “What sets him apart is his mental approach to the game. I have been a PGA professional for 13 years, almost as long as he has been alive, and he knows more about the game of golf than I do.
“I have never known anyone who was so naturally adaptable mentally to the game as Tiger. He had all the knowledge to play golf when he was much younger. All he needed was to grow a little taller, and now he’s done that.”
Woods learned the game from his father, a low-handicap golfer who was the first black to play baseball in the Big Seven (now the Big Eight) Conference. Earl Woods was a catcher at Kansas State in the early 1950s. After a brief professional career was cut short by a shoulder injury, the elder Woods joined the Army and became a lieutenant colonel with the Green Berets special forces. He served in Europe, Asia and Vietnam before retiring after 20 years.
Tiger got his nickname from a war buddy of his father who was missing in action. Eldrick was born in Long Beach in 1975, but Earl called him Tiger from the beginning.
When he was still in a highchair, Tiger sat and watched his father hit golf balls into a net in the family garage. One day, armed with a cut-down putter, Tiger toddled to the mat in the garage and emulated his father’s swing.
“It was uncanny,” Earl recalls. “He set up over the ball exactly the way I did, waggled the club, looked at the target, waggled again, and then swung. It was like looking at myself in a miniature mirror.”
Tiger calls it “simulating his swing through visualization.”
At age 1, Tiger made his first appearance at the Navy course, at 2 he shot his 48 for nine holes, at 3 he was a regular on the driving range and won a Pitch, Putt and Drive contest against 10- and 11-year-olds, at 5 he played in his first junior tournament and at 8 won his first Junior World championship.
“Winning that first tournament, the way I won it, is still my biggest thrill in golf,” Tiger said. “I was out of it, but I shot five-under-par (51) to win it at Presidio Hills.”
Woods has since won four more Junior World championships--more than any other player in the tournament’s history--and has three more years to try for six, seven and eight. The five Junior World trophies occupy a place of honor in the entryway of his home.
When he won this year, Woods bettered the mark of four victories he shared with Sharon Barrett, who won hers in the late 1970s. He won the 10-and-under in 1984 and 1985 and finished second in 1986. Moving up to the 11-12 class in 1987, he finished ninth, but then won in 1988 and, after advancing to the 13-14 class, he won that the last two years.
Woods shot 68-69-67--204 on the par-71 Mission Trails course to equal the tournament record set by Jonathan Baker in 1981 at Balboa Park.
“I told everybody I was going to win it (Junior World) this year,” he said. “I felt really confident. I never had any doubts. I won by five, but it wasn’t that easy. I was only one ahead with about nine to play, but I was playing really good.”
In addition to his father, Tiger credits professionals Rudy Duran and John Anselmo for helping in his development. Duran, now at Chalk Mountain in Atascadero, was Tiger’s coach at Heartwell Park in Long Beach until he was 10. Anselmo is a teaching pro at the Meadowlark course in Huntington Beach.
“Mainly, they worked with my swing, keeping me under control,” Tiger said with a smile. “Most young players tend to overswing and I was no different, but they taught me the golden rule--to maintain balance and swing within myself. If you swing 20 times harder than Greg Norman, it won’t do a bit of good unless you maintain your balance.”
Earl Woods, 58, who retired after 20 years in the army and 10 more with McDonnell Douglas, has spent most of this summer chaperoning Tiger to and from junior tournaments. They have been in France, Texas and Oregon, as well as all over California, and are now headed for Florida, where Tiger will be playing this week in the National PGA Junior championships at Palm Beach.
Woods shot his best round, a 63, to win the La Mirada city junior title the day before he left for Ft. Worth, where he won the Big I tournament against juniors 17 and under at the Ridgeles course. Woods, who finished second last year, shot 70-73-69-74--286 to win by three shots.
Woods, who represents Industry Hills in tournaments, also won overall in the Los Angeles City juniors, the Gary Walde Memorial at Industry Hills, the Southern California four-ball with Eddy Lee of Corona, was a member of the winning team in the Junior America’s Cup matches at Yorba Linda, and was captain of the Southern California team that played in France.
Sunday at Portland, Ore., he shot a 72 to finish at 145 and help the Southern California team win the Hogan Cup matches with a 36-hole total of 444. San Diego was second at 450.
“Tiger had to struggle in Paris because he was matched against much older players, but he won one individual match and another team match,” said Jerry Herrera, the Azusa Greens head pro who arranged the international contest. “I would say without hesitation that Tiger has more talent than any other 14-year-old in the world.”
In his first try at the U.S. Junior championship, which is for boys 17 and under, Woods lost in the semifinals. The only other events he lost this summer were the Lee Hamill Memorial at Los Coyotes, where he finished second to Lee, the Southern Section high school champion, and the California Country Club father-and-son tournament, where he and his father lost to Kemp and Scott Richardson.
“We’d won the father-and-son three or four times, so we were about due to lose,” Tiger said.
He graduated from Orangeview Junior High in Anaheim with a near straight-A average and will enter Anaheim Western High next month.
“School comes first, golf second,” he said. “How much practice I do in golf is determined by how soon I finish my homework. You can’t accomplish anything without an education. I definitely plan to finish college before thinking about turning professional.”
In one respect, Woods is a throwback to Ben Hogan in that he would rather practice than play.
“I like practicing more because that’s where I can experiment with different types of shots,” Tiger said. “When you’re in a tournament, you can’t experiment, you have to stick with what you know.
“Right now, on the practice tee, I’m working on hitting from my knees. I’ve already mastered the high hook and the low hook and the high slice and the low slice and left-handed shots for when the ball is up against a fence or something. I want to learn to hit from my knees because sometimes the ball is under a tree or a bush and that’s all the swing you have.”
At home, when the homework is done, Tiger even practices in the living room--not with his putter but with his wedge.
“I chip over that big chair and make the ball stop before it hits the bricks (in front of the fireplace). It takes a lot of concentration, because there’s a lot of pressure on me when I try that shot. If I miss, my mother will get after me, but it’s good training for finesse and getting the right feel for delicate shots.”
Then, if he feels like hitting some full shots, he can go out to the garage and hit into the net--right where he hit his first balls nearly 14 years ago. The net is still up.
Tiger Woods appears to have a bright future, but not a single black professional golfer has contacted him to offer encouragement, assistance or advice.
“Maybe they’ve never heard of me,” Woods said.