When he was three years old, Tiger Woods shot a nine-hole score of 48. As incredible a golf feat as this was, we now know it was barely a glimpse of his superstar future.
I was 12 the first time my father took me to play golf. I couldn’t tell you the exact day when I first broke 50 over nine holes, but I can safely say that it didn’t happen right away.
Earl Woods taught his son how to play every aspect of the game and how to mentally defeat any opponent he came up against. He taught him how to be a champion.
My Dad didn’t exactly teach me those things, but I did learn from watching. Golf became an obsession, and also a way for he and I to connect over the years.
The 2019 Masters was my first ever visit to the legendary event. Generally, I’m not one for going to see PGA tournaments live; it’s a TV sport for me. But ever since I started playing golf competitively, I’d always wanted to go to The Masters. Dad knew this, and he planned an amazing two-day trip for us.
We had always thought of our father-son relationship as close. But underneath all the buddy-buddy fun, there turned out to be a lot more complexity. It took me years to realize this and understand it. One of life’s great ironies lies in how family relationships can so often be fraught. Even though we are preternaturally wired to care most about those who carry the same blood, it’s not always such a straight line. Human nature has a way of getting in the way.
During the winter of 2018, I told my Dad some things that were very hard to say. They were also hard for him to hear. It was a crucible for both of us; complete with pain and tears. But we confronted it head-on — and got through it.
As a result, our going to Augusta National felt like closing a circle. At least it did for me. My Dad and I were now closer, because after all of that straight talk, our relationship was finally a more honest one. More real.
Being at The Masters for the Wednesday practice round and then the first round of the tournament was an amazing experience. I had thought there was no way it could possibly live up to my expectations. I was wrong.
I have dozens of indelible memories from those two days walking and watching amidst the Georgia pines. But there is one that stands out.
As we were camped on the famous 12th hole along Amen’s Corner, watching the best players in the game hit their tee shots, time stood still for a minute when Tiger’s group approached.
Over the years, I’d played golf with a good number of well-known athletes and golf pros. But just then, I realized that I’d never even seen Tiger Woods outside of on a TV screen. I turned to my Dad and asked him if he had. “Nope.” Then I pinched him in the arm and said: “We will never forget this moment. Right now. Tiger walking up to the box and hitting his tee-shot at The Masters!” We were like two little kids.
I was reminded of all of this last night while I was taking in a Golf Channel special about the 1997 Masters — the first PGA major championship Tiger ever won.
Two decades later, I still remember watching that historic Masters. Tiger didn’t just win — he dominated in a way no one had seen since Jack Nicklaus. And he was just 21 years old.
Ironically, Tiger limped out of the gate in that tournament. He shot a four-over-par 40 on the front nine, which would turn out to be the highest ever Thursday score for a player who would go on to win the same Masters.
He shot a record six-under-par on the back, and then went on to embarrass the rest of the field. Tiger finished the tournament 18 under par — 12 shots ahead of second-place Tom Kite. In addition to the new Masters record he set with his four-round score, his dozen-shot margin of victory was the largest in any major championship in PGA history.
As soon as Tiger walked off the 18th green, he beelined straight over to his father. As you’d expect, they hugged and they cried. But you could also hear Earl Woods’s muffled voice as he said the same two words over and over to his son: “We made it.”
Twenty-seven years later, sitting on that 12th tee, my Dad and I were watching the 43-year-old Tiger play the first round in what would become one of the most spectacular comebacks in sports history.
By that Sunday, I was home watching the tournament on TV and rooting for Tiger like millions of other golf fans. After he won, he immediately embraced his children, just as his Dad had clutched him so many years ago. At 10 and 11 years old, Tiger’s kids had never seen their legendary father win a major. His last big win had been the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. For a guy who was trained to win by a father who was his hero, it must have been an indescribably powerful experience for Tiger to have his own children on hand to watch him win The Masters.
Over the years, my Dad and I have won a few golf tournaments playing as a team. He’s always been an amazing competitor, and maybe a little bit of that rubbed off on me.
A few years back, I finally made it to the semi-final of a tournament that he’d won twice as a younger man. I was up against a guy who had 15 years on me and was a star player in college.
My Dad watched the match with some of my friends. Earlier in the week, I’d had a cortisone shot in my right arm. And every day for the rest of the week, he called to ask me the same two-part question: “How’s the pain in the elbow? What percent do you think you’ll be on Saturday?”
I think I wanted to win that damn tournament more for him than for me. A son still searching for his father’s approval. It’s an ageless theme, but it can be a slippery slope.
I did have a chance to win on that Saturday afternoon, but I let it slip away on the back side. Dad watched me miss a three-foot putt on the 13th green, and we both knew it was over. It was just a golf tournament, but damned if it didn’t hurt.
Every day of the following week, I was the one calling him. “Can you believe I missed that ____ putt?!?!” He’d let me get it out of my system — and then we’d both crack up.
Golf has always been the connector for us. Like so many fathers and sons, it’s more than a game; it’s the tie that binds. We were actually planning to go back to the Masters in 2020 — pre-Coronavirus. Dad was pumped to return, reminding me each week that April 8th was soon approaching.
Perhaps we’ll go again someday, but it matters not. Those two days in 2019 getting to attend my favorite sports event in the world will always stay with me. But not just because I’d always wanted to go or because the spectator experience was utterly magnificent. The more meaningful part was that my Dad wanted so badly for me to get to see it, that he painstakingly planned every part of it — and that we had a great time doing it. Together.