The Secret History of Tiger Woods
ESPN The Magazine|May 09,2016

The death of his father set a battle raging inside the world’s greatest golfer. How he waged that war—through an obsession with the Navy SEALs and affairs that weren’t what they seemed—is the tale of how Tiger lost his way.

Wright Thompson


TEN YEARS AGO, Tiger Woods sat in his boyhood home across from his father’s body, waiting on the men from the funeral home to arrive and carry Earl away. It was around 3 in the morning. Outside this bedroom in Cypress, California, the mechanism of burial and goodbye sputtered into action, while inside, Tiger and his half sister, Royce, floated in those gauzy first hours after a death, when a loved one isn’t there but doesn’t quite seem gone either. About an hour earlier, Earl had taken two or three final breaths that sounded different from the ones that came before. Tiger got the call and came straight to Cypress, passing the Navy golf course where he learned to play, turning finally onto Teakwood Street. His dad never sold the house because he liked the easily accessible nostalgia. If Earl wanted, he could go see the Obi-Wan Kenobi poster still hanging on Tiger’s closet door, or find an old Nintendo or Lego Star Destroyer. Earl died three steps from his son’s old room.

Royce says she sat with her father on the bed, rubbing his back, like she’d done the last few hours as he faded.

“You’re waiting for him to wake up?”

Tiger asked. “Yes,” Royce said. “I am too.” Three days later, on May 6, 2006, the family gathered at a private air terminal in Anaheim to take Earl’s remains back to Manhattan, Kansas, where he grew up. Tiger’s mom, Tida, and his wife, Elin, sat together in the Gulfstream IV, facing each other, according to Royce. Elin did college homework, which she often did during any free moment, in airplanes or even on fishing trips, working toward her degree in psychology. Tiger’s half siblings came along; Royce and Earl Jr. sat at a table, and Kevin sat across from them on a couch. There were six passengers total, and Tiger plopped down in his usual seat, in the front left of the plane. He put the urn holding his father’s remains directly across from him—Royce made a joke about “strapping Dad in”—and when the pilot pushed the throttles forward to lift off, Royce said, Tiger stretched out his legs to hold the urn in place with his feet.

The flight took 2 hours and 20 minutes.

His siblings tried to talk about the old days. Kevin retold a favorite about a camping trip with a 10- or 11-year-old Tiger, in a forest of tall trees: While walking to use the bathroom, Tiger had stopped and peered high into the branches.

“What are you looking at?” Kevin had asked him. “Ewoks,” Tiger said. Sitting in the plane, Tiger didn’t say much. He and his siblings landed and drove to the Sunset Cemetery, a mile southwest of K-State’s campus, past the zoo and a high school and a cannon dedicated to the memory of dead Union soldiers. Earl, a former Green Beret and Vietnam combat veteran, would have liked that. The graveyard was cool in the shade, the hills rolling from the street toward a gully. Woodpeckers hammered away in the trees. The family gathered around a hole in the ground, between Earl’s parents, Miles and Maude Woods. Two cedars and five pines rose into the air. Tiger stayed strong, comforting his mother, and Earl Jr. watched him, impressed. They buried the ashes and left.

After a brief stop at the house where Earl grew up—strangers owned it, so the Woods family stood in the front yard and told a few stories, and this being rural Kansas, the neighbors didn’t interrupt or ask for autographs—everyone headed back to the airport. Seventy-seven minutes after touching down in Kansas, Tiger took off again for Orange County.

Consider him in that moment, 30 years old, the greatest golfer in the world, winner of 10 major championships and counting, confident that the dreams he and his father conceived on Teakwood Street would eventually all come true. His pilot climbed above the clouds. The return trip took 40 minutes longer, exactly 3 hours, and nobody said much, feeling heavy, processing the idea that they’d left Earl behind in the Kansas dirt. Tiger Woods sat in his usual place, facing forward, the seat across from him empty now.

ALMOST 10 YEARS later, on the far western end of an island in the Bahamas, Tiger Woods is where he feels most comfortable: hidden behind multiple layers of security and exclusivity, standing with two or three friends in the dark of a marina. It’s early December, 28 days before his 40th birthday. His annual tournament begins at a nearby course soon. Both his boats float a few dozen yards away, in two of the first three slips: the 155-foot yacht named Privacy, alongside the smaller, sleeker diving boat he named Solitude. On the main deck of the big boat, there’s a basket of sunscreen, a pile of rolled towels and a white orchid. The marina around them couldn’t be more private, without a coffee shop or store, not even showing up on the navigational charts in some maritime GPS systems. (Woods’ camp declined to comment for this story.)

Docking in a luxury marina is about the only place to catch a random glimpse of Tiger, who moves through the world in a cocoon of his own creation. When he bought his plane, he blocked the tail number from tracking websites: It ends in QS, the standard code for Net- Jets. Many athletes, by contrast, have some sort of vanity registration, and some even have custom paint jobs; Michael Jordan’s plane is detailed in North Carolina blue, and his tail number is N236MJ—the “6” is for his titles. Jack Nicklaus flies around in N1JN nicknamed Air Bear. Sitting on a tarmac, Tiger’s plane looks like it belongs to an anonymous business traveler, nothing giving away its famous owner. He comes and goes quietly.

Tonight the running lights glowing just offshore belong to Steven Spielberg’s The Seven Seas. Marina staff members come across a lot of celebrities, and when they gather away from work, they tell stories, about how Johnny Depp is down-to-earth or how Tiger isn’t a diva but is just, well, he’s just really weird. Once, when his dog left a tennis ball in the harbormaster’s office, Tiger called down and asked someone to “secure” the ball until a crew member could retrieve it, and the staff still laugh and roll their eyes about it. They don’t know that he often uses military lingo, a small window into how deep he’s gotten into that world, words like “secure” and “downrange” and, even in text messages to his friend Michael Jordan, “roger that.”

Standing at the southwest corner of the marina, Tiger and his group make plans for later, and then he walks off down the road. There’s no entourage or Team Tiger, no agent or handlers or managers, just a middle-aged man alone, coming to terms with himself and his future, which will hold far more quiet marinas in the years ahead than packed fairways. Not long ago, he asked Jordan a simple yet heavy question: How did you know when it was time to walk away?

Tiger hasn’t hit a golf ball in about two months. He can’t really run; not long ago, he told Time magazine, he fell down in his backyard without a cellphone and had to just lie there until his daughter happened to find him. Tiger sent her to get help. He’s had two back operations in the past three months. Yesterday at a news conference, he said for the first time in public that his golf career might be over. A reporter asked what he did for exercise. “I walk,” he said. And? He smiled. “I walk and I walk some more.” He paused, and asked himself a question. “Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?” “I don’t know. I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy.”

His friends started hearing these admissions about a month ago. His college roommate Notah Begay texted him around Halloween. Tiger loves Halloween. He’s a big kid in many ways. When he lived in Orlando, a former neighbor said, he liked to ride on a skateboard 

behind a golf cart in the gated country club he called home. He loves the Transformers and comic-book heroes; in the past, he’s checked into hotels under the name Logan Howlett, which is Wolverine’s human name in X-Men. When he booked his free-diving lessons in Grand Cayman, instructor Kirk Krack recalled, he reserved his spot under the name Eric Cartman. So of course he loves Halloween, and when Notah asked about his costume, Tiger wrote back. “I’m going as a golfer known as Tiger Woods.” Sitting at a steakhouse in the Bahamas one night, Begay is quiet for a moment. He’s here for the Golf Channel, forced years ago by his own bad back to make the same admissions that Tiger is making now: The dreams he dreamed as a boy are ending. They met as children—Tiger was 9 and Notah was 12—playing youth golf in California. They saw each other, perhaps the only nonwhite, nonwealthy people around, and Notah walked up to Tiger and told him, “You’ll never be alone again.” They’ve been friends ever since, passing together through each stage of life. A few weeks ago, he and Tiger were hanging out at the house in Jupiter when Woods realized they needed to make a carpool run and get his kids at school. They drove over and parked in line with the other parents, about 30 minutes early, and to kill the time, they laughed and talked about Stanford. “Tiger and I do a lot of looking back,” Begay says. “He loves to talk about college.”

Tiger told stories about how his daughter likes soccer and is already a prankster, and Begay said how his girl loves gymnastics and drawing, and then they looked at each other and just started laughing: Can you believe we are sitting in a carpool line? Tiger is facing the reckoning that all young and powerful men face, the end of that youth and power, and a future spent figuring out how those things might be mourned and possibly replaced. This final comeback, if he ever gets healthy, will be his last.

“He knows,” Begay says.

THE DECADE SEPARATING the cemetery in Kansas and the marina in the Bahamas has seen Tiger lose many of the things most important to him, and the more time passes, the more it’s clear he left some essential part of himself there in the ground between Miles and Maude Woods. How did all he’d built come undone so quickly and so completely? That’s the question that will shadow him for the rest of his life. The answer is complicated and layered. He fell victim to many things, some well-known and others deeply private: grief, loneliness, desire, freedom and his fixation with his father’s profession, the military. These forces started working in Tiger’s life almost as soon as his G-IV landed back in Orange County after he buried his father’s ashes. The forces kept working until finally his wife found text messages from Rachel Uchitel on his phone and he ran his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant. (That car, incidentally, is owned by a man in rural Arkansas who bought it used from a local dealer, neither of whom knew its secret history.)

After Thanksgiving in 2009, his life split open in the most public and embarrassing way—can you imagine having to talk about your sex life in a news conference with your mom in the front row?—but that car crash wasn’t the beginning of his unraveling. In an odd way, it was the end. Everything he’s endured these past seven years, including admitting that his golf career might be finished, is a consequence of decisions he made in the three years after he lost Earl. He’d been hurtling toward that fire hydrant for a long time. On some level, he even understood what was happening to him, or at least was invested in understanding. There was a book in his car the night of the wreck, and it ended up on the floorboard, covered in shards of glass. Its title was Get a Grip on Physics.

The topic fascinated Woods. He’d long struggled to sleep, and when he wasn’t texting or playing video games, he’d read, often military books about lone men facing impossible odds, such as Roberts Ridge or Lone Survivor, or books about theoretical physics and cosmology. The intro to Get a Grip laid out the basic rules of early science, from Newton and Galileo, focused on the concepts of friction and gravity. These had long interested him. Five-year-old Tiger once made a drawing that showed stickmen swinging different clubs, with the club-face sketched, as well as the flight path of the ball, including distance and apex.

That drawing is a window into something Woods himself perhaps still can’t articulate; even at that age, he was curious enough to be thinking about physics. From the beginning, his golf talent has seemed to be an expression of his genius, not the genius itself.

He is a remarkable person, and not because he once won 14 important golf tournaments, but because he thinks about how he came to occupy his particular space in the world. “He certainly had his mind open to big questions, such as who he was, or who anyone was,” says a close friend who requested anonymity, “and had his mind open to the idea that sometimes the question is the answer.” Six pages into Get a Grip, author John Gribbin sums up a truth governing both the world and the relationship between Earl and Tiger Woods: “There was a fundamental law of nature which said that, left to their own devices, things move in circles.”

THERE’S ALWAYS A layer of mystery between fathers and sons, even those as close as Tiger and Earl Woods. They lived such different lives. Earl joined the Green Berets because he saw them as the only place a black man could be treated fairly, and when he retired, he played golf day after day. (Before his son, Earl had the lowest handicap at the Navy golf course near their home, despite not picking up a club until he was 42.) There were things Tiger could never know about combat, just as Earl could never really understand the cost of his son’s fame.

“I know exactly how you feel,” Earl said once. “No, Dad, you don’t,” Tiger replied. He grew up without siblings or many friends. Tiger and Earl did everything together, hitting balls into a net out in the garage, or spending hours at the golf course, and when they’d finish, Earl would order a rum and Diet Coke, and Tiger would get a Coke with cherries, and they’d sit and nurse their drinks like two old men. The golf pro at the Navy course, Joe Grohman, worried that Tiger didn’t have friends his own age until high school. His friends were Earl and Earl’s old military buddies. That’s who he played golf with, retired old soldiers and sailors and marines, with the occasional active-duty guy stationed near Los Angeles. Fighter jets took off and landed at the airstrip parallel to the 17th and 18th fairways. Tiger heard the stories and saw the deep love even strangers felt for each other. His entire childhood revolved around these men and their code.

Tiger and Earl held strong opinions about how things should work and nursed deep stubborn streaks, so they often butted heads. The most serious rift between them, which festered for years, centered on Earl’s love for women. Tiger hated that his dad cheated on his mom and cried to his high school girlfriend about it. His parents never divorced but moved into their own houses, and the only reason they still needed to communicate at all was their son’s rising golf career; like many overachieving kids in a broken home, Tiger found early on that his talent could help create the family he wanted. He could mend the broken places inside all of them. It’s also clear that Tiger grew up first emulating his dad and then trying to be better than Earl. All sons, whether they love or hate their fathers, or some combination of both, want to cleanse themselves of any inherited weakness, shaking free from the past. This is certainly true for Tiger, whose father seems to evoke conflicting emotions: The best and worst things that have happened in his life happened because of Earl.

As Tiger got famous, Earl traveled the world with him. The definitive book about Tiger and Earl, Tom Callahan’s His Father’s Son, details the women in Earl’s orbit. There was a “cook” at the 2001 Open Championship, and when Callahan said she must be a good cook, Earl grinned and said, “She sure knows how to keep that potato chip bowl filled up.” At another event in South Africa, a stream of escorts made their way to Earl’s room. Callahan reports that near the end of Earl’s life, Tiger and Earl stopped talking for a while. “Tiger’s mad at me,” he told the author, and implied that he’d gotten into some sort of woman trouble that his son paid to make go away. Ultimately, Callahan wrote, Tida is the one who persuaded Tiger to make peace, telling her son that he’d regret it if Earl died before he made things right.

“He’s going to be gone and you’re going to be sorry,” she told him.

They fixed the rift, perhaps because as Tiger’s circle of trust tightened to include virtually no one, he still knew he could talk to his dad about anything, even if he didn’t particularly like Earl at the time. Earl never judged. They were father and son, and teacher and student, best friends and running buddies and together, one complete person.

Just after the 2004 Masters, Tiger and his dad took a trip together to Fort Bragg, where Earl had been stationed with the Green Berets. A group of Earl’s old military buddies came along, while Tiger got the VIP tour, running with the 82nd Airborne and tandem-jumping with the Golden Knights, the Army’s parachute team. The man assigned to take Tiger out of the plane was a soldier named Billy Van Soelen, who explained the difference between broad daylight at Fort Bragg and pitch-black combat situations. “Your dad was doing tactical jumps,” he said, nodding around at the controlled environment. “This is Hollywood.”

Van Soelen strapped Tiger to himself and then the two flung themselves out into space, smooth with no bobble. Tiger grinned the whole way down.

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