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Tiger Cubs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Off in the distance, the golf carts move into squadron formation, five of them hurtling across the driving range toward a group of screaming children.

There are 2,500 of them, squeezed alongside parents and chaperons into temporary bleachers left over from the Long Beach Grand Prix. They are standing and they are shouting, eyes wide with anticipation as the carts draw near, bringing with them valuable cargo, Christmas in April.

Tiger Woods is coming to town.

As the bombastic strains of “Eye of the Tiger” float over the makeshift stadium at El Dorado Park Golf Course, the cart carrying Woods eases to a halt. Out steps the headline performer for the Tiger Woods Foundation Junior Golf Clinic and Exhibition, one of four such tour stops Woods will make in 2001. He is here to hit a few golf balls, answer a few questions, tell a few jokes, spin a few life lessons for a group of inner-city kids hanging on his every syllable.

First, however, Beverly O’Neill, the mayor of Long Beach, has a few gifts to present. First, the key to the city, on whose municipal links Tiger spent many rounds as a youngster growing up in Cypress. Then, a framed photo of a 13-year-old Tiger, clad in all white, looking very, very serious as he completed a late 1980s follow-through.

“Ohhhh, man,” the 25-year-old Tiger says as he sheepishly backs away and shakes his head, eventually pulling off his baseball cap to cover his blushing face.

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O’Neill launches into a short speech about Tiger, but gets the last name wrong, calling him Wood, as in: “Right now, Tiger Wood belongs to the world. But today, Tiger Wood belongs to Long Beach!”

Woods listens quietly and smiles politely. In the bleachers, however, the amped and revved Tiger Youth are not so patient.

“Tiger WOODS!!” they shout, loudly offering their free assistance.

A few moments later, some of them are plucked from the crowd to step up to the microphone and ask Woods some questions.

“What was your lowest score ever?” the first kid asks.

“For 18 holes?” Woods replies. “Hmm. For 18 holes, I shot, in ’97, right before I won the Masters, back home in Florida, I shot 59.”

The crowd cheers, whistles and applauds. It’s an easy audience.

Another question: “How does it feel to be the No. 1 hero of all these children?”

How do you answer that one? For a second or two, Woods seems stumped.

“Number one hero?” he replies with an embarrassed smile. “Well, thank you.

“I don’t know,” he continues, shrugging. “I chase a little white ball around and work on my farmer tan. That’s about it.”

The perfect answer. Tiger laughs. The kids laugh with him.

Question: “How did you feel the first time you played in front of cameras?”

Again, Woods plays it for laughs.

“I don’t know--I was 3 years old,” he says. “I can’t remember that far back.”

Question: “What can I do to be like you?”

Woods bursts into laughter. Only 25, yet so much the old pro, he pauses a beat, angling for just the right comedic timing, and delivers:

“You better eat your Wheaties!”

*

Woods has been conducting these clinics since 1997, bringing his game back to the community and to inner-city junior golfers--"young people historically denied access and exposure to the sport,” according to the foundation’s promotional literature.

Saturday’s event has been on the docket for weeks, but Woods’ Masters victory last Sunday has spiked the interest level just a tad, turning a grass-roots instructional clinic into a full-on media trough feed.

Fifteen TV camera crews have been dispatched to El Dorado. Organizers have issued more than 100 media credentials. A full battery of long-lensed photographers greets Tiger and his father, Earl, as they arrive for an outdoor news conference, urging the two to stand together, then to keep standing, and keep standing some more.

Earl eventually moves to his chair, but the photographers plead with him to stay. One more! One more!

“You guys are pros?” Earl says with a sarcastic cackle. “If I was as efficient in my job as you are shooting cameras, I’d be fired.”

Tiger has just finished two hours of individual instruction with 25 junior golfers. Some did a better job of knocking their knees than banging their five-irons, but mostly, Tiger came away impressed.

“I’m glad I got a few wins under my belt,” he says, “because when these kids get up there, it’s going to be incredible. You look at some of these kids, they should be playing other sports, but they chose golf. That’s what I kept telling people--in the next 20 years, you’re going to see kids growing up who should have played basketball, football, baseball, ran track, true athletes, now playing golf.

“With that physique, that strength, the game is going to be so easy for them. Some of the kids out here hit the ball almost as far as I do, and they’re 13, 14, 15 years old. I’m a little older than them, and I don’t hit short. These kids go out there and they just bomb it. They have no fear, which is pretty cool to see. It just makes me glad to be at least a small part of that.”

The goal of these clinics, he says, is “pretty simple--to make these kids have a better future. To present them with a chance to make something of themselves. That’s something we all want to do, we all think about doing it. We’re just doing it . . .

“I want everyone to have access to this game. Whoever wants to play should be able to play. That wasn’t always the case in this game. Minorities have been shunned away in this sport, unfortunately, in the past, but that shouldn’t be right, and it isn’t right. And right now, we’re trying to change that process.

“It is improving. It will continue to improve. And I think what you’re seeing out here, a lot of these kids who probably wouldn’t have had the chance to play 15, 20 years ago are now given the chance. That’s pretty neat to see.”

*

It can be nerve-racking, however, having your stroke scoped by the greatest golfer on the planet.

With Woods looking on, 15-year-old Jeremiah Budai of Long Beach wipes the sweating palms of his hands on the end of his shirt before nervously gripping and re-gripping his club.

Budai has been golfing for only a year. He wears white basketball sneakers as he leans over the ball. He is scuffling as Woods quietly studies his swing, sending balls slicing right and dribbling others onto the fairway.

Woods moves in and demonstrates the proper way to shift one’s weight throughout the swing. Budai nods and tries again. This time, the ball sails high and straight.

“Keep hanging in there, all right?” Woods tells him as he moves to another golfer.

Brendan Diette, 15, is a member of the Long Beach Millikan High golf team. He’s cranking it pretty good as Woods watches, listening intently when Woods dispenses advice and implementing whatever he can.

But when Woods and his tag-along paparazzi head over to watch another golfer, Diette puffs out his cheeks in relief.

“Pretty cool,” Diette says to a reporter. “It was awesome, it was crazy. All these people watching you. It makes you kinda nervous. I kept saying to myself, ‘Just don’t shank it.’ ”

Two of Woods’ old junior coaches, Rudy Duran and John Anselmo, assist with the instruction. Time and again, they are witness to the same scene: Woods approaching a wide-eyed youngster, reaching out to shake the golfer’s trembling hand, offering encouragement and occasionally cracking a joke to ease the tension.

“They’re scared to death when he walks up to them,” Anselmo says. “Once he opens his mouth, they calm down. They end up loving every minute of it.”

Woods has “a nice bedside manner,” Duran says. “He seems to make a good connection with the kids. He seems to know how to disarm their anxieties quickly.”

*

Then again, there’s nothing that compares to watching the instructor take matters into his own hands.

“I think I’m going to hit a few shots here,” Woods tells the audience inside the makeshift stadium. For the next 45 minutes, Woods entertains the crowd with an array of draws and fades, chip shots and flop shots, hitting targets planted 100 to 300 yards away.

He amuses himself in the process. “Oh, baby!” he exclaims after one particularly sweet shot. “Wow, that was fun, let’s do that again,” he announces after another.

It’s really simple, Woods tells the crowd as he readies a tee shot, as long as “you trust your swing.”

Bang! The ball is launched, cascading over the 200-, 250- and 300-yard markers.

“I can trust my swing all I want,” mutters one photographer as he admires the ball’s reentry into Long Beach air space. “But it’s not going to do that.”


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