- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

At the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, Earl Woods responded to an interview request from a cub reporter covering just his third major championship for The Washington Times with a chuckle:

“You know, son, you’re real lucky,” Woods said. “You came along at just the right time to spend your career watching the greatest golfer who ever lived.”

Woods, who rarely uttered a dull word, died Wednesday at 74 from cancer … but not before watching his son make good on that seemingly outlandish proclamation.

Sure, Earl authored some real zingers in his day, like the time he claimed Tiger would have a greater impact on the planet than Gandhi or Jesus. But in the oft-criticized pantheon of famous sports parents, it’s impossible to argue with Earl’s results.

He introduced Tiger to the game in his highchair. He prepared him physically, mentally and emotionally for the challenges of the game and fame. And less than three months after that day in Detroit, he stepped into the shadows content that his son and best friend was armed for ultimate success. A decade later, Tiger has amassed 10 major triumphs, 48 PGA Tour victories and is likely the most recognizable athlete on the globe.

There are some that will suggest that Earl’s death will sidetrack Tiger’s career. After all, Tiger probably was closer to “Pops” than anyone. The pair talked every day, in spite of Tiger’s hectic schedule and Earl’s declining health. And Tiger’s two most emotional public moments, both after Masters victories (1997 and 2005), were directly attributable to his father’s failing health.

But while Tiger is undoubtedly hurting, it would be presumptuous to expect his game to suffer. Jack Nicklaus, nearly always the Tiger template, gives us reason to think otherwise.

When Nicklaus’ beloved father, Charlie, died at 56 in 1970, the Golden Bear was exactly the same age as Woods (30). A pharmacist in Columbus, Ohio, Charlie introduced Jack to golf and followed every swing of his career from Ohio State through his first seven major victories, seemingly living vicariously through his son. And when Charlie died, many assumed his passing would debilitate young Jack.

But several years ago at the Masters, Nicklaus explained that his father’s death served as a wake-up call for his own maturation, as a father, player and person.

“I realized he cared more about my game than I did, and I felt like I’d let him down,” Nicklaus said of his play in the several years before his father’s death. “I stopped taking it for granted and got my act together.”

In the months following his father’s death, Nicklaus dropped nearly 40 pounds and broke the longest major drought of his prime (12 events) later in 1970 at the British Open.

Tiger needs no such wake-up call. His focus has never wavered. And in fact, it’s a safe bet he wants to win next month’s U.S. Open now more than ever as a tribute to Earl. Pops, the green beret, the man who used to cuss Tiger while he putted to improve his concentration, never put much stock in soft. And his ultimate legacy is likely to be a son who loves and respects him too much to ever allow a crack in his unparalleled competitive constitution.

Local events

A pair of local courses will paly host to major demo and instruction days free to the public this weekend. Reston National, long one of area’s most solid and convenient daily-fee tracks, will christen its newly renovated range and clubhouse tomorrow and Sunday as one of only five national sites for the Golf Digest “Experience Tour.”

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, representatives from equipment manufacturers including Callaway Golf, Graphite Design, Nike and Ping will be at the facility, showcasing their wares and conducting a series of skills challenges for an array of prizes.

“Golf Digest including Reston National in such an exclusive rotation of courses is a major testament to the impressive enhancements to our practice facilities,” said Joel Gohlmann, a regional manager for Billy Casper Golf, which acquired the facility last year and has made drastic improvements on and off the course.

Also on the weekend docket, Cannon Ridge Golf Course in Fredericksburg will play host to Play Golf America Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow. An initiative begun two years ago by the PGA of America, Play Golf America is intended to celebrate and encourage players of all ages. Free activities will include on-site instruction from more than 25 area PGA professionals, who will conduct clinics for all playing levels, and extensive available equipment testing from industry leaders like Titleist, Callaway, Nike, Ping, Hogan and Cobra.

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