Twenty years ago this week, we saw something that no one in the history of golf had ever witnessed: a 21-year-old kid obliterating records that had stood for decades.
Tiger Woods changed golf forever at the 1997 Masters.
This was 13 years before I started coaching him. At the time, I was just another awestruck fan. I was working in the pro shop at Gaylord Springs Golf Links in Nashville, where I was also going to college. Every time CBS cut to one of Tiger’s shots, I was absolutely glued to the little TV on the wall.
To a certain extent, I had seen this coming. Three years before the ’97 Masters, I had gotten to see Tiger up close. He was just a senior in high school, but he was running this clinic for college players that I attended.
The kid’s swing was like nothing I had ever seen. I remember how elegant and long his backswing was, and then the absolute vortex of rotation as he attacked the golf ball. I had never heard a ball come off a clubface like it did off of Tiger’s. And I haven’t since. It was like a train coming out of a tunnel. Every single shot. He hit these beautiful high draws, then some low ones that would rise up like a jet. He hit low and high cuts. Three-hundred-yard drives. This 18-year-old had total molecular control over the golf ball.
I knew all this, but still … watching him do it at the Masters? With all that pressure? At 21? It was incredible. I was utterly amazed when I saw Tiger hit a wedge into 11, a long par-4, and an 8-iron into 8, a par-5. Somehow, he made everything look almost effortless.
But what really impressed me was something much more striking. It didn’t have to do with his swing or putting. It had to do with him, the human. I was more interested in watching Tiger between shots than when he was over the ball. I would study how he walked down the fairway. He looked like an emperor. And when the camera captured his face, it seemed like he would never blink.
I recognized something familiar.
Tiger’s mom had raised him as a Buddhist. In 1997, I had been studying Buddhism for over 10 years. Tiger seemed to be in a meditative trance throughout the entire week.
What impressed me more than anything else was how Tiger understood how to concentrate.
By the time he slipped on the green jacket, golf, and the way it was perceived, had changed forever. Go back and watch video of Tiger on Sunday. He’s fist-pumping. He’s roaring. He’s doing things golfers aren’t supposed to do. He’s wearing red … a red so stark that, for some reason, it seemed brighter because he was wearing it.
There was Tiger Woods, and then there was golf. Not the other way around. That Sunday turned the sport upside down in ways we have all benefited from.
It’s amazing to me that it’s been 20 years since his historic victory. But it’s even more amazing to me that I ended up getting to know Tiger, the person.
And what I found out was pretty incredible.
I began teaching on Tour in 2007, at the height of Tiger’s reign. Back then he could make you feel like tournaments were over before anybody even teed off. I can remember more than one occasion of being out on the range coaching whoever I was working with on a Thursday morning. Everything would be going fine until Tiger walked out to take a few swings. He had something intangible no one had ever seen in golf. It was almost like his competitors could see their fate. And he knew that you knew that he knew that he was going to beat you — and beat you bad. And he destroyed everyone else’s psyche because of that.
From 1997 to 2008, he did stuff like this:
When Tiger returned to golf in 2010 after more than six months away from the game he wasn’t the same guy, physically or mentally, who we once knew. Who would be? The injuries, the surgeries, the personal challenges in life — they all take their toll. But beyond the physical gifts I had come to admire, from both up close and afar, the thing that struck me the most when we started working together that year was how his mind worked.
Even though his body wouldn’t let him hit balls for six to eight hours a day like he did early in his career, his mind was as focused as ever on improving. What impressed me more than anything else was how Tiger understood how to concentrate. I mean really focus. For a long time, he had to answer questions about his personal life, and why he hadn’t won a tournament in however many starts, and why he was changing his swing. It went on and on. And for a golfer, heck, for any human being, that kind of stuff can destroy you. But somehow — whether it was through his father’s teachings or a method he had discovered early in his career — Tiger was able to block out all the noise around him.
I learned why in 2012.
It was Thursday morning at the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. Like I always did, I went out to meet Tiger on the range before he teed off. The practice area was quiet that morning — maybe because it was a little cold — so if you spoke, everyone within 10 or 15 feet could hear you.
I walked up to Joey LaCava, Tiger’s caddy, and said hello to him. I glanced at Tiger. I was standing 10 feet behind him. His swing looked great.
I said, “Hey, T-Dubs. What’s up, man?”
Nothing. No turn. No smile. No head nod. No earbuds in. Nothing. I looked over at LaCava.
“How’s it going? How we doing today?”
“Good,” he said. “Think we’re locked in.”
Tiger continued to hit. He barely looked up from his grip or the bag of balls … the only reason he looked above his shoulder line was to see where he was hitting or what the wind was doing. Even when he went back to his bag to switch clubs and we came within inches of one another, his eyes stayed hidden under his cap.
It was as if he was the only one in the whole world.
I continued to talk with LaCava about the course and Tiger’s swing. After around 10 minutes, Tiger came back to get a new glove. He paused when he put it on and looked up at me. We made eye contact for the first time since I arrived.
“Hey Foles, I didn’t see you there,” he said. “How are ya, bud?”
He was serious.
Think about that. Think about the level of concentration … the level of self-discipline. The ability to block out everything — to take such total control over your own senses that you only hear and see and smell and feel what you want.
It wasn’t just that he wanted to block everything out. It was that he needed to. That day was the first time it dawned on me that his own mind is probably the only place Tiger can escape to, the only place he can get away from all the noise.
Can you even imagine? When you have to have three police officers escorting you everywhere, even from player parking to the range … as you get older, that stuff gets tiring. Even in practice rounds, hundreds of people would be yelling crazy things at him. How many times, and how many different ways, can a guy be asked if he’s going to win 18 majors? I saw how that started to wear on Tiger.
There’s not much left for Tiger to do. What more do people want him to achieve?
Don’t get me wrong. I know that comes with the territory when you build an empire like he has. And I would love to see Tiger get to the top again. There’s nothing better than Tiger in contention on the back nine of a major. But as his friend, I want so much more for him. I want him to continue to grow as a person and as a father. I want him to do the things he cares deeply about, like working with kids.
Throughout my four years with Tiger, I was able to see him grow as a human being; as an individual who has made amends and worked to become a better person. I think about all the prophetic things his father, Earl, said about him. I don’t think any of that is over.
Tiger’s only 41 years old. Will he continue to break records on the course? I hope so. Will he have an even greater impact off of it? Absolutely.
For me, one story proves that there’s more greatness in Tiger Woods’s future.
In 2011 my wife, Kate, was pregnant with our son, Kieran, when our doctors told us that he had what’s called a diaphragmatic hernia. Essentially, there was an opening in his diaphragm, which meant that some of the organs in his abdomen could actually rise up into his chest cavity. We were told that there was a 20% chance that Kieran was going to die right after he was born, and a high possibility that, if he survived, he was going to have cerebral palsy.
We were crushed. I went through every emotion imaginable. I was scared. Absolutely terrified.
Kieran was due just about two days after the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. Tiger missed the cut that week, which led to lots of questions — like whether our decision to work together was the right move, or whether Tiger was done, or whether Tiger’s mind was fully there.
My mind immediately went to one thing: People don’t know this side of Tiger.
And while he was dealing with that, I was constantly texting and calling Kate to see how she was holding up. The doctors had told us that they were highly optimistic that they could operate on Kieran within the first couple of days of his life, which, emotionally, was an incredible turn of events. The doctors and nurses rarely use that type of language in the NICU. That being said, it was one of the most difficult things either one of us has ever had to go through or think about. If he wasn’t healthy enough, he would have to wait six weeks for the surgery. We would’ve needed to put him on life support, and if he made it through the first month and a half of his life, he was still very likely going to go in and out of sickness for what would have been a short life.
Given all that was going on in the media with Tiger and back home with Kate, I felt like the world was caving in around me. The drive home from Atlanta to Orlando felt like a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from. My wife and I knew that there was a very real possibility that our baby boy could come into this world and then just … die.
A few days later, Kieran was born.
Luckily, he was healthy and stable, and the doctors were able to operate within a few days. It was a relief, but seeing my tiny baby attached to all these monitors and machines … that vision will never be erased from my memory.
One day early on, when I was sitting with Kieran in the hospital, I went to wash my hands. When I turned on the water, I noticed something on the wall above the faucet. It was a small plaque. It couldn’t have been bigger than a note card. I took a closer look and read the words.
THIS ROOM WAS DONATED BY TIGER WOODS.
My mind immediately went to one thing….
People don’t know this side of Tiger.
My infant son was brought to health in the room that Tiger Woods donated to the hospital. This was not on purpose. This was merely a coincidence. Even so, I called Tiger and told him. He said that he had been so impressed with the way the same hospital had handled his daughter’s birth that he had decided to help them to build new facilities. Think of how many families have had their lives changed in those rooms.
That’s the Tiger Woods I know.
I hope going forward that people see more of that side of Tiger. He’s a complex individual. And the world around him is complex, too.
We went through a lot together. There were ups and downs. I’m grateful for everything. And these days I’m like everyone else in the game who’s sad that Tiger can’t seem to get healthy.
There’s not much left for Tiger to do. What more do people want him to achieve? He seems content with his new role in life. That’s good enough for me.
It’s been 20 years since the kid in the red shirt changed golf forever.
Let’s just be happy that we were able to witness one of the greatest of all time for as many years as we did. And we should be grateful for whatever else he is able to give us. How many people truly change an entire sport?
Not just in a season or over a career, but in only four days in April.