Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
The day Tiger Woods came to Manakiki Golf Course, there was virtually no one aware he was at the popular Metroparks course in Willoughby Hills but a small group of junior golfers, their parents, and myself.
It was a chilly Sunday morning in May. Woods was there to put on a clinic for the juniors prior to the National Minority Championship held the next day. He was accompanied by his father, Earl.
I was asked by my friend, Ken Carpenter, then an editor at Golfweek Magazine, to interview Woods for his thoughts about serving as a role model for minorities in the all-white world of golf and write a free-lance story.
It was 1994. Bill Belichick was the Browns head coach. The Internet wasn’t readily available. Smart phones weren’t invented yet. O.J. Simpson was still a sports and entertainment icon.
Woods was a child prodigy, a winner of three straight U.S. Junior Amateur Championships, but had not yet taken the golf world by storm. There was no autograph throng or horde of TV cameras waiting for him.
In fact, Woods blended in with the other junior golfers he was about to entertain. He was finishing up his senior year in high school. I described him in my story as "6-2 and a rail-thin 145 pounds.”
“These players are older than I am,” he said with a laugh.
Yet there already was a sense in him – imbued by his parents, mostly his father, we would learn – that he had a higher calling than merely winning trophies.
“All that matters is I touch kids the way I can through these clinics and they benefit from them,” he said. “I have this talent. I might as well use it to benefit somebody.”
Father and son: Earl Woods carried a stool with folded aluminum legs and what looked like a small suitcase to the range next to the first tee. The suitcase opened into a pair of small speakers with a microphone attached.
Earl Woods narrated into the microphone during the entire clinic, which lasted about an hour. Tiger never spoke.
After some introductory comments, which allowed Tiger to loosen up with some soft pitch shots, Earl voiced instructions for Tiger to demonstrate a variety of shots. Tiger obliged with crisp shots from every iron in his bag.
At one point, Earl introduced a drill that called for Tiger to hit four different clubs – an eight-iron, seven, six and five – at a flag positioned 155 yards down the range.
Earl explained that Tiger worked this drill on the range during a practice round at the Nestle Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, FL, for which Tiger had a sponsor’s exemption. Earl related that David Leadbetter, the renowned short-game instructor, observed the drill and said to Earl, “That’s pretty neat. But when he gets up to six clubs, he can do something [Ben] Hogan did.”
Earl responded, according to Earl, “Yeah, but Tiger can hit three different shots with each club – left-to-right, right-to-left, and knockdown.”
“I don’t think Hogan did that,” Leadbetter responded, per Earl.
On cue from Earl, Tiger began the drill knocking down straight shots with each club. Then he worked the ball left-to-right with each club. Then right-to-left. Each ball threatened the flagstick 155 yards away.
By the conclusion of this drill, Tiger was perspiring despite the chilly temperature. Earl made a few more remarks, and the young audience gave an appreciative round of applause.
I vaguely remember a few junior golfers asking for Tiger’s autograph after the clinic, but nothing extraordinary.
It was understood I would meet Tiger in the clubhouse for an interview.
A vision: Earl answered a few questions about starting Tiger in golf at the age of 3 and then excused himself. He walked outside for a cigarette, leaving Tiger and me alone.
As Tiger munched on a candy bar and water, I asked him about the responsibility of opening the game of golf to African-Americans.
He said, “That’s a funny question. My mom is part Thai and part Chinese, and my father is actually part Chinese. So I’m actually one-fourth black. When I go to Thailand to visit or to play in tournaments, I’m considered a Thai role model, but over here I’m considered a black role model. I don’t understand.”
With his father away, I asked if he ever felt pressured by his dad to play and compete, and whether he feared burning out like teenage tennis prodigies have done.
“I love this game to death,” he said. “It’s like a drug I have to have. I take time off sometimes because of the mental strain it puts on you, but when I’m competing, the will to win overcomes the physical and mental breakdowns.”
I wrapped up the interview, shook hands with Tiger and went home to write. I called Carpenter to report the interview went fine. I remember saying how impressive Woods was, how he seemed much older than 18. The story appeared in Golfweek two weeks later on Page 9.
Three years after Woods’ appearance at Manakiki, at the age of 21, Woods won The Masters by 12 strokes.
Twenty-five years after my encounter with him, he won The Masters for a fifth time, completing an improbable comeback from incredible personal humility caused by his own doing, and three back and three knee surgeries.
During Woods’ triumphant march on the back nine of Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday, I thought about that day he put on a private show at Manakiki and how nobody could have imagined the impact he would have on the game of golf – except for him and his dad.