Woods shares smiles with these kids

It took two key interviews to get the story. Gerardo Cortez went first, followed by some golfer named Tiger.

Gerardo was animated, his big, brown eyes flashing with excitement, his squeaky little voice in full pitch. Gerardo was describing how to match fingerprints at a crime site, how you establish the properties of DNA: "You look at the nucleus, and ... "

Gerardo is 10. He is in fifth grade.

The golfer, Tiger, is a little older, 30 to be exact. He was a pretty good student in fifth grade, growing up in Cypress, and he kept it going well enough to get into Stanford, no less.

When Tiger heard how excited Gerardo had been, he got excited too. The infectious smile that has been bursting onto television screens in homes around the world for the last 10 years, usually late on Sunday afternoons while he is standing near a trophy, lighted up again.

"Isn't it great how happy they are there?" he said.

It wasn't really a question. Nobody knows better than he does. He created it.

The address of the Tiger Woods Learning Center is 1 Tiger Woods Way, Anaheim, Calif. It is at Crescent Avenue and Gilbert Street, just off the Santa Ana Freeway and a short walk from Brookhurst Junior High School. So that address isn't needed, just earned.

It has been open for only a year, so what it is and what it does remains vague to people, assuming they even know it exists. Most important is what it is not.

The Tiger Woods Learning Center is not a golf school. It is not a day-care center. It is not a remedial learning center.

It is, when all is said and done, a $10-million, 35,000-square-foot, functionally opulent testimonial to caring. It is Andre Agassi-like in its message of giving back, making a difference, contributing to society -- all cliches most common to people who talk and don't do.

Tiger Woods did.

It began, Woods said, two days after the tragedy of Sept. 11.

"I was driving back from St. Louis," he said. "It took a couple days. No planes flying, so you drove, and you had plenty of time on your hands, time to reflect on life and family."

By then, Woods had become the best player in the game and one of the most famous athletes in the world. The year before, he had won nine tournaments, including three of the four majors. Life was good, and there was a Tiger Woods Foundation already in place.

"We did a lot of junior clinics, workshops," he said. "But we were like a traveling circus -- here today, gone tomorrow."

So he walked into the office of his foundation director, Greg McLaughlin, and said he wanted more, something with the staying power that bricks and mortar can bring. He started it with a $5-million reach into his own pocket, and has helped sustain its annual $2-million operational needs by, among other things, signing over whatever paycheck he brings home from his annual Target World Challenge, the elite, 16-player event starting Thursday at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks.

He has won it twice, the check to this year's winner will be $1.35 million, and he made it clear that, whatever his winnings are, they will go directly to the cause.

"Every cent," he said.

Gerardo Cortez attends John Marshall Elementary School in Anaheim. He is typical of the estimated 8,000 students, grades 5 to 12, expected to use the learning center this year.

According to Katherine Bihr, the center's executive director, area school calendars typically have students going three months on and one off. She and her staff of 12 recruit those students who are on their month off. A typical session is about 15 class days, but there are also programs for after-school and weekends.

The curriculum ranges from studies of the crime scene that so fascinated Gerardo to movie-making, bridge-building engineering, website creating, desktop publishing and even rocket launching.

"We launched one out on the golf driving range," Bihr said. "The goal was to get it 200 feet in the air, and they did."

The learning center is next to the Doc Miller Golf Course, and Bihr keeps two young golf pros on staff. The facility overlooks a huge driving range so manicured that it looks like a giant putting green at Riviera.

Part of the day, there are youngsters on the range, most of them trying, for the first time, the sport that is paying the bills. Woods and Bihr are sensitive to the perception that this is all about golf.

"Golf is maybe 5% of the program here," Bihr said.

Everything is meant to be a life lesson. Everything is geared to Woods' stated goal of "producing good citizens and great leaders."

Everything is free, including lunch. But that doesn't mean there aren't financial lessons, such as how to spot a good deal.

On the driving range, a large bucket of balls costs 50 cents.


Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 19, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction Golf: In Bill Dwyre's column in Sports on Wednesday, the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim was said to be next to the Doc Miller Golf Course. It is the Dad Miller Golf Course.
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