The Secret History of Tiger Woods

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 -- is the tale of how Tiger lost his way.

Editor's note: This story on Tiger Woods was originally published on April 21, 2016. Watch some of the Masters' most memorable moments Friday on ESPN.

Act I

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.

The secret history of Tiger Woods

In the 10 years since his father died, Tiger Woods lost his greatness at golf, while becoming obsessed with the military and indulging in a dozen or more affairs -- both reflections of Earl Woods. Wright Thompson reports on the secret history of Tiger. Photograph by John Huet.

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 NetJets. 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.

Tiger grew up without any siblings or many friends and spent his childhood with Earl, either on the golf course or hitting balls into a net in the garage. Splash News

"I walk," he said.


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 both 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.

"Tiger and I do a lot of looking back," says Notah Begay, Tiger's roommate at Stanford. "He loves to talk about college." Warren Little/Getty Images

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 own 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 clubface 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."

Scot Tucker/AP Images

Florida Highway Patrol/Getty Images

Tiger Woods reads a statement in which he apologizes for his actions. Scot Tucker/AP Images; Florida Highway Patrol/Getty Images; Eric Gay/AP Images

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.

“The thing is, I love him so much that I can't tell him, 'You're not gonna be great again.'”

- Michael Jordan

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.

Earl was waiting in the drop zone, Van Soelen says, and he gave Tiger a big hug.

"Now you understand my world," he told his son.

Earl needed an oxygen tank during that trip. He'd been dying slowly for years and regretted that he wouldn't live to see the end of Tiger's journey. His second heart attack happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during Tiger's initial year on tour, and by the winter of 2005, a year and a half after Fort Bragg, it was clear to everyone that Earl didn't have much time. Now consider Tiger Woods again, in this moment the best golfer in the world, taking his first break ever -- 24 days without touching a club, the most since he was a boy -- watching his father die. He spent a lot of that break on Teakwood Street, struggling to sleep, three days passing before he finally drifted off on the floor. On Dec. 25, his dad woke up and threw a shoe at a sleeping Tiger.

When Tiger groggily looked up, Earl said, "Merry Christmas."

That vacation ended -- they both knew Earl was dying and Tiger made his peace with it -- and Woods planned to open his season at the 2006 Buick Invitational near San Diego. But three days before his first competitive round of the year, Tiger arranged for a VIP tour of the Coronado BUD/S compound (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training), where recruits are turned into SEALs. Most classes start with about 200 students, and if 30 graduate, that's a great percentage. It's the most difficult military training in the world.

When he arrived, Tiger spoke to Class 259, there waiting for First Phase to begin, and told them something he'd never said in public: He wanted to be a SEAL when he was young. The class loved Tiger's advice about mental preparation and focus, while the instructors rolled their eyes when Tiger said he would have been one of them were it not for golf. They've seen Olympic medalists and Division I football players quit, unable to stand the pain. A top-ranked triathlete washed out.

The tour visited Special Boat Team-12 and SEAL Team 7. During one stop, a SEAL named Thom Shea helped conduct a weapons demonstration, with seven or eight guns spread out in front of him, from the Sig Sauer pistol through the entire sniper suite of weapons. Three years later, Shea would earn a Silver Star leading a team into battle in Afghanistan. Tiger stood on one side of the table, his arms crossed, a pair of Oakley sunglasses resting on the back of his knit cap. Shea says Tiger remained very quiet, taking in as much as he could, only turning on his famous smile when someone asked for a picture or an autograph. After the table show, Shea walked Tiger to another building for the next part of this tour. The two men talked on the way, and even a decade later, Shea remembers the conversation, because of everything that would happen later. Tiger wanted to know how SEALs kept their home life together despite the strain of constant travel and long separations. Shea told him that balance was the only thing that worked. He says Tiger asked how they kept this up, year after year of stress, the long slog always outlasting the romance of a job title. "It's a life," Shea remembers saying. "You just do it. You keep practicing."

The following Sunday, Tiger Woods won the Buick Invitational in a playoff.

Three months later, Earl died and everything started to fall apart.

John Huet

Act II

TWENTY-FIVE DAYS after he buried his father and 15 before the 2006 U.S. Open, Tiger went back to visit the Navy SEALs, this time to a hidden mountain training facility east of San Diego. The place is known as La Posta, and it's located on a barren stretch of winding road near the Mexican border. Everything is a shade of muted tan and green, like Afghanistan, with boulders the size of cars along the highway.

This time, Tiger came to do more than watch.

He tried the SR-25 sniper rifle and the SEALs' pistol of choice, the Sig Sauer P226. One of the instructors was Petty Officer 1st Class John Brown, whose father also served as a Green Beret in Vietnam. Brown pulled Tiger aside. The sun was shining, a nice day, and the two men talked, standing on the northeast corner of a shooting facility.

"Why are you here?" Brown remembers asking.

"My dad," Tiger said, explaining that Earl had told him he'd either end up being a golfer or a special operations soldier. "My dad told me I had two paths to choose from."

Brown says Tiger seemed to genuinely want to know about their way of life. Tiger asked questions about Brown's family and they figured out that Brown's wife and Tiger shared the same birthday. Tiger told him not to ever try to match Michael Jordan drink for drink. They talked about Earl, and Brown felt like Tiger wanted "safe harbor" from his grief, a way to purge some of it even, to prove something to himself, or maybe prove something to the spirit of Earl, whose special ops career never approached the daring of a SEAL team.

"I definitely think he was searching for something," Brown says. "Most people have to live with their regrets. But he got to experience a taste of what might have been."

The instructors gave Tiger camo pants and a brown T-shirt. He carried an M4 assault rifle and strapped a pistol to his right leg. On a strip of white tape above his right hip pocket, someone wrote "TIGER." SEAL Ben Marshall (his name has been changed for this story because he remains on active duty) took Tiger to the Kill House, the high-stress combat simulator where SEALs practice clearing rooms and rescuing hostages. Marshall is a veteran of many combat deployments and was with Tiger making sure he didn't get too hurt. The instructors ran the golfer through the house over and over, lighting him up with Simunition, high-powered paint rounds that leave big, painful bruises. "It was so much fun to hit him," Marshall says. "He looked like a deer in the headlights. I was spraying him up like it was nothing."

The instructors set up targets, some of terrorists holding weapons and others of innocent civilians. Under fire and stress, Tiger needed to decide who should die and who should live. During one trip through the Kill House, the guys switched out a target of someone with a gun for one of a photographer, and when Tiger came through the door, he killed the person with the camera, according to two witnesses. The SEALs asked why he'd shot a civilian.

First Tiger apologized for his mistake.

Then he made a joke about hating photographers.

Eventually, Woods learned how to clear a room, working corners and figuring out lanes of fire, doing something only a handful of civilians are ever allowed to do: run through mock gun battles with actual Navy SEALs. "He can move through the house," says Ed Hiner, a retired SEAL who helped oversee training during the time and wrote a book called First, Fast, Fearless. "He's not freaking out. You escalate it. You start shooting and then you start blowing s--- up. A lot of people freak out. It's too loud, it's too crazy. He did well."

At one point, Marshall put him through a combat stress shooting course, making him carry a 30-pound ammunition box, do overhead presses with it, do pushups and run up a hill, with shooting mixed in. Tiger struggled with slowing his heart rate down enough to hit the targets, but he attacked the course.

"He went all out," Marshall said. "He just f---ing went all out."

Marshall got his golf clubs at one point and asked Tiger to sign his TaylorMade bag. Tiger refused, sheepishly, saying he couldn't sign a competing brand. So Marshall challenged him to a driving contest for the signature. Both Marshall and Brown confirmed what happened next: Tiger grinned and agreed. Some other guys gathered around a raised area overlooking the shooting range. Marshall went first and hit a solid drive, around 260 or 270 yards. Tiger looked at him and teed up a ball, gripping the TaylorMade driver.

Then he got down on his knees.

He swung the club like a baseball bat and crushed one out past Marshall's drive. Tiger started laughing, and then all the SEALs started laughing, and eventually Marshall was laughing too.

"Well, I can just shoot you now and you can die," Marshall joked, "or you can run and die tired."

Tiger had affairs with many women, including Rachel Uchitel (left), Cori Rist (center) and Jaimee Grubbs (right), looking for something he couldn't find. Getty Images

THE MILITARY MEN and their bravado sent Tiger back in time to the Navy golf course with Earl and those salty retired soldiers and sailors. He missed his dad, of course, but he also missed the idea of Earl, which was as important as the man himself. Sometimes his dad traveled to tournaments and never visited the course, staying put at a hotel or rented house in case Tiger needed him. They could talk about anything, from the big questions of life, like Tiger's completely earnest belief in ghosts, to simple things a man should know, like how to order spacers of water between beers to keep from getting so drunk. (That last bit came about after a bad night at a Stanford fraternity party.) Without Earl, Tiger felt adrift and lonely. He threw himself back into his circus of a life, moving from place to place. And in the months after the funeral, the extramarital affairs either began or intensified. That summer of 2006, he met at least two of the mistresses who'd eventually hit the tabloids.

To be clear, he'd always talked a good game about women, long before he married Elin Nordegren in 2004. In 1999, in the quiet Oregon woods near the Deschutes River with Mark O'Meara and one of the best steelhead guides in the world, Tiger held court about the perks of being a professional athlete. "I'm walking down the trail with him and he's bragging about his sexual conquests," says guide Amy Hazel. "And this is when everybody thought he was the golden boy."

He told just filthy stories that Hazel wouldn't repeat, but even with the boasts and dirty jokes, she saw him as more of a big kid than a playboy. "Nerdy and socially awkward" are her words, and he seemed happiest standing in the river riffing lines from the Dalai Lama scene in Caddyshack.

The sexual bravado hid his awkwardness around women. One night he went to a club in New York with Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan. Jeter and Jordan circulated, talking with ease to one beautiful woman after another. (Both declined to comment about the episode.) At one point, Tiger walked up to them and asked the question that lives in the heart of every junior high boy and nearly every grown man too.

"What do you do to talk to girls?"

Jeter and Jordan looked at each other, then back at Tiger, sort of stunned.

Go tell 'em you're Tiger Woods, they said.

If Tiger was looking for something, it was seemingly lots of different things, finding pieces in a rotating cast of people. He and Rachel Uchitel bonded over their mutual grief. His fresh wounds from losing Earl helped him understand her scars from her father's cocaine overdose when she was 15, and her fiancé's death in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. The broken parts of themselves fit together, according to her best friend, Tim Bitici. Sometimes Rachel stayed with Tiger for days, Bitici says. Nobody ever seemed to ask Tiger where he was or what he was doing. Bitici went with Rachel down to Orlando to visit Tiger, who put them up in a condo near his house. When he came over, he walked in and closed all the blinds. Then he sat between Tim and Rachel on the couch and they all watched Chelsea Lately.

"This makes me so happy," Tiger said, according to Bitici.

Many of these relationships had that odd domestic quality, which got mostly ignored in favor of the tabloid splash of threesomes. Tiger once met Jaimee Grubbs in a hotel room, she told a magazine, and instead of getting right down to business, they watched a Tom Hanks movie and cuddled. Cori Rist remembered breakfast in bed. "It was very normal and traditional in a sense," she says. "He was trying to push that whole image and lifestyle away just to have something real. Even if it's just for a night."

Many times, he couldn't sleep.

Insomnia plagued him, and he'd end up awake for days. Bitici says that Tiger asked Rachel to meet him when he'd gone too long without sleep. Only after she arrived could he nod off. Bitici thinks Tiger just wanted a witness to his life. Not the famous life people saw from outside but the real one, where he kept the few things that belonged only to him. This wasn't a series of one-night stands but something more complex and strange. He called women constantly, war-dialing until they picked up, sometimes just to narrate simple everyday activities. When they didn't answer, he called their friends. Sometimes he talked to them about Earl and his childhood.

We never see the past coming up behind because shaping the future takes so much effort. That's one of those lessons everyone must learn for themselves, including Tiger Woods. He juggled a harem of women at once, looking for something he couldn't find, while he made more and more time for his obsession with the military, and he either ignored or did not notice the repeating patterns from Earl's life. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, we grow up like our daddy after all," says Paul Fregia, first director of the Tiger Woods Foundation. "In some respects, he became what he loathed about his father."

Tiger told numerous Navy SEALs -- whose facial features ESPN is protecting because some remain on active duty -- that he wanted to be a SEAL when he was young and follow in his father's special ops lifestyle. Courtesy Wright Thompson

“I definitely think he was searching for something. Most people have to live with their regrets. But he got to experience a taste of what might have been.”

- Petty Officer 1st Class John Brown on Tiger training with SEALs

Some SEALs complained that Tiger was only doing the fun stuff, shooting guns and jumping out of airplanes, but never the brutal, awful parts of being a SEAL. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Journalist Deborah Carson

THE MILITARY TRIPS continued through 2006 into 2007, kept almost completely a secret. At home, Tiger read books on SEALs and watched the documentary about BUD/S Class 234 over and over. He played Call of Duty for hours straight, so into the fantasy that his friends joked that after Tiger got shot in the game they might find him dead on the couch. When he could, he spent time with real-life operators. Tiger shot guns, learned combat tactics and did free-fall skydiving with active-duty SEALs. During one trip to La Posta, he remembered things they'd told him about their families, asking about wives, things he didn't do in the golf world; Mark O'Meara said Tiger never asks about his kids.

"If Tiger was around other professional athletes, storytelling would always have a nature of one-upmanship," a friend says. "If Tiger was around some sort of active or retired military personnel, he was all ears. He was genuinely interested in what they had to say. Any time he told a military-related story that he had heard or talked about a tactic he had learned, he had a smile on his face. I can't say that about anything else."

One evening, Brown and two other guys put Tiger in the back seat of a king-cab pickup truck and drove him an hour and a half out into the desert to a training base named Niland, where a SEAL team was doing its final predeployment workup, staging a raid on a mock Afghan village that had been built down in a valley. They stood on a hill looking into the darkness. The SEAL platoon charged toward the position. Flares popped off, trailing into the darkness, and the valley rocked with the deep boom of artillery simulation and the chatter of small-arms fire. In the glow, Tiger looked transfixed. "It was f---ing awesome," Brown says, laughing. "I don't know if we just got a glimpse of him in a different light, but he just seemed incredibly humble, grateful."

"He can literally think himself through the skydives," says Billy Helmers, a SEAL who jumped with Tiger, shown here skydiving in San Diego. Splash News

His golfing team, particularly swing coach Hank Haney, understood the risk, sending a long email scolding Tiger for putting his career at risk: You need to get that whole SEALs thing out of your system. Haney does a lot of benefit work, including some for the special operations community, so stories would later trickle back to him about injuries suffered during training. Caddie Steve Williams thought the 2006 U.S. Open, where Tiger missed his first major cut as a pro, was the first time he'd ever seen Woods not mentally prepared. Tiger talked openly about the grief and loss he felt when he practiced, since that activity was so closely wound together with his memories of his dad.

The moments with the military added some joy to what he has repeatedly called the worst year of his life, and he chose to spend Dec. 30, 2006 -- his 31st birthday -- in San Diego skydiving with SEALs. This was his second skydiving trip; a month earlier, in the middle of a seven-tournament win streak, he'd gotten his free-fall USPA A-license, now able to jump without a tandem. Across the country, in Florida, his reps put a news release on his website, revealing for the first time that Elin was pregnant. Tiger Woods was going to be a father.

Elin came with him to San Diego on his birthday, and they rode south and east of the city, near a land preserve a few miles from Mexico, halfway between Chula Vista and Tecate. The road curved at banked angles, and up ahead a small airport came into view. Nichol's Field is a collection of maybe two dozen buildings. To the east of the property, a cluster of metal huts sat behind red stop signs: warning, restricted area. This was Tactical Air Operations, one of the places where the SEALs practice jumps. The main building felt like an inner sanctum: a SEAL flag on the wall and parachute riggings hung from the ceiling. They wore blue-and-white jumpsuits, Tiger and the three or four SEALs. He learned advanced air maneuvers. After each jump, the guys would tell Tiger what to do differently and he'd go off by himself for a bit to visualize the next jump and then go back up in the plane and dive into the air, doing everything they'd said. "The dude's amazing," says Billy Helmers, a SEAL who jumped with him that day. "He can literally think himself through the skydives."

The SEALs put a birthday cake on a table in one of the Tac Air buildings. It had a skydiver decorated on it in icing and read "Happy Birthday, Tiger!" The team guys and their families gathered around and sang "Happy Birthday," and then Tiger leaned in and blew out his candles. Everyone took pictures, and in them Tiger is smiling, and it's not the grin that people know from commercials and news conferences. He looks unwatched and calm.

WHILE HE MADE friends with some of the SEALs, many of their fellow operators didn't know why Tiger wanted to play soldier. It rubbed them the wrong way. Guys saw him doing the fun stuff, shooting guns and jumping out of airplanes, but never the brutal, awful parts of being a SEAL, soaking for hours in hypothermic waters, so covered in sand and grit that the skin simply grinds away. One year during hell week, a BUD/S candidate collapsed, his body temperature below 90 degrees; the man, a former wrestler, would rather have frozen to death than quit.

Was Tiger willing to do that?

"Tiger Woods never got wet and sandy," says former SEAL and current Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, who ran the training facility during the years Tiger came around. The BUD/S instructors didn't like the way Tiger talked about how he'd have been a SEAL if he didn't choose golf. "I just reached out to the guys I know who jumped with him and interacted with him," says a retired SEAL. "Not a single one wants to have any involvement, or have their name mentioned in the press anywhere near his. His interactions with the guys were not always the most stellar, and most were very underwhelmed with him as a man."

Then there's the story of the lunch, which spread throughout the Naval Special Warfare community. Guys still tell it, almost a decade later. Tiger and a group of five or six went to a diner in La Posta. The waitress brought the check and the table went silent, according to two people there that day. Nobody said anything and neither did Tiger, and the other guys sort of looked at one another.

Finally one of the SEALs said, "Separate checks, please."

The waitress walked away.

"We are all baffled," says one SEAL, a veteran of numerous combat deployments. "We are sitting there with Tiger f---ing Woods, who probably makes more than all of us combined in a day. He's shooting our ammo, taking our time. He's a weird f---ing guy. That's weird s---. Something's wrong with you."

“It was very normal and traditional in a sense. He was trying to push that whole image and lifestyle away just to have something real. Even if it's just for a night.”

- Cori Rist, one of Tiger's mistresses

THEY'RE NOT WRONG, not exactly, but the SEALs are also viewing Tiger through their own pre-existing idea of how a superstar should act, so his behavior processes as arrogant and selfish. That reaction has colored Tiger's relationships his entire life: People who meet him for 30 seconds love him, and people who spend several hours with him think he's aloof and weird, while people who hang around long enough to know him end up both loving him and being oddly protective. His truest self is shy, awkward and basically well-intentioned, as unsuited for life in public as he is suited for hitting a ball.

"Frankly, the real Tiger Woods isn't that marketable," a friend says. "There isn't a lot of money to be made off a guy who just wants to be left alone to read a book. Or left alone to play fetch with his dog. Or left alone to play with his kids. Or left alone to lift weights. Or left alone to play a video game. Do you see a trend? Tiger was a natural introvert, and the financial interest for him to be extroverted really drove a wedge in his personality. Being a celebrity changed him and he struggled with that -- and he struggled with the fact that he struggled with that."

Tiger uses well-rehearsed set pieces as standard icebreakers -- things that get trotted out again and again. Famously, in front of a GQ reporter in 1997, he told a joke that ended on a punch line about a black guy taking off a condom. He told the same joke in 2006 to a SEAL at a Navy shooting range and to a woman at Butter, a New York nightclub. Talk to enough people who've met him and it starts to seem like he's doing an impersonation of what he thinks a superstar athlete is supposed to be. Once he bought a Porsche Carrera GT, similar to the one driven by many celebrities, but one of the first times he got behind the wheel, the powerful car got away from him, spinning off into the grass near his house. He took it back to the dealership.

Tiger has repeatedly called 2006 the worst year of his life. Here, Tiger, Elin and Tida arrive at a reception after a funeral service for Earl in California. Branimir Kvartuc/AP Images

TIGER BOUGHT A pair of combat boots. They were black, made by the tactical outfitter Blackhawk, popular with ex-special ops guys who become contractors and mercenaries. The boots were inevitable, in hindsight. You can't insert something as intense as the SEAL culture into the mind of someone like Tiger Woods and not have him chase it down a deep, dark hole. He started doing the timed 4-mile run in combat boots, required by everyone who wants to graduate from BUD/S. A friend named Corey Carroll, who refused to comment and whose parents lived near Tiger, did the workouts with him. They'd leave from Carroll's parents' home, heading north, out onto the golf course. The rare sighting was almost too strange to process: Tiger Woods in combat boots, wearing Nike workout pants or long combat-style trousers, depending on the weather, pounding out 8 1/2-minute miles, within striking distance of the time needed for BUD/S.

Tiger knew the SEAL physical requirements by heart, easily knocking out the pushups, pullups and situps. When he couldn't sleep, he'd end up at a nearby Gold's Gym at 3 a.m., grinding. One of his favorite workouts was the ladder, or PT pyramid, a popular Navy SEAL exercise: one pullup, two pushups, three situps, then two, four, six, up to 10, 20, 30 and back down again.

Soon, the training at La Posta didn't cut it. He found something more intense with Duane Dieter, a man allowed by the Navy to train SEALs in a specialized form of martial arts that he invented. Dieter is a divisive figure in the special operations world, working out of his own training compound on the Maryland shore. His method is called Close Quarters Defense, or CQD, and some students look at him as an almost spiritual guide, like a modern samurai. Others think he's overrated. For Dieter, few things were more important than ancient warrior principles like light and dark energy.

Tiger got introduced by the Navy and learned CQD in Coronado. Hooked, he wanted to go further and ended up making trips to Dieter's compound in Maryland. He'd fly in and either stay at the facility or at the nearby fancy resort, Inn at Perry Cabin by Belmond, according to a source who saw Tiger with Dieter. He'd park outside a nearby Target, sending someone else inside for cheap throwaway clothes that they could ruin with the Simunition. The practice rounds left huge bruises. He did all sorts of weapons training and fighting there, including this drill invented by Dieter: He would stand in a room, hands by his side, wearing a helmet with a protective face shield. A hood would be lowered over the helmet and loud white noise would play. It sounded like an approaching train, the speakers turning on and off at random intervals, lasting 30 seconds, or maybe just five. Then the hood would fly up and there would be a scenario. Maybe two people were talking. Or maybe one was a hostile and the other a hostage. If the people posed no threat, the correct response was to check corners and not draw your weapon. Then the hood would go back down, and there'd be more music, and when it came up, the scenario had changed. Sometimes a guy threw punches, to the body and head, and Tiger would need to free himself and draw his weapon. At first, the instructors went easy, not hitting him as hard as they'd hit a SEAL. Tiger put a stop to that and soon they jumped him as aggressively as everyone else. When the drill finally ended, the room smelled like gunpowder.

An idea began to take hold, a dream, really, one that could destroy the disconnect Tiger felt in his life, completely killing off the character he played in public. Maybe he could just disappear into the shadow world of special operations. He mentioned his plans to people around him, one by one. He pulled over a car at a tournament once and told Steve Williams he wanted to join the Navy. He told Haney he thought it would be cool to go through training. Once, Carroll had to talk him down via text message, according to someone present for the exchange, because Tiger wanted to quit golf and join the Navy. There's only one reason to run 4 miles in pants and combat boots. This wasn't some proto-training to develop a new gear of mental toughness. "The goal was to make it through BUD/S," says a former friend who knew about the training. "It had nothing to do with golf."

To many people inside Tiger's circle, Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors wasn't as important to Tiger as it was to the golfing media and fans. He never mentioned it. Multiple people who've spent significant amounts of time with him say that. When Tiger did talk about it, someone else usually brought it up and he merely responded. The record instead became something to break so he could chase something that truly mattered. He loved the anonymity of wearing a uniform and being part of a team. "It was very, very serious," the friend says. "If he had had a hot two years and broken the record, he would have hung up his clubs and enlisted. No doubt."

Tiger talked about some of these military trips with his friends, including describing skydiving to Michael Jordan, who saw a pattern repeating from his own past. Years before, he'd lost his father, and in his grief, he sought solace doing something his dad loved, quitting the Bulls and riding minor league buses for the Birmingham Barons. "It could be his way of playing baseball," Jordan would say years later. "Soothing his father's interest."

Jordan looked sad as he said this, perhaps feeling the heaviness of it all or even the luck involved. He somehow got through his grief and reclaimed his greatness, while Tiger has tried and failed over and over again.

"Ah, boy," Jordan sighed.

Brynn Anderson/AP Images

“If he had broken Nicklaus' record, Tiger would have hung up his clubs and enlisted. No doubt.”

- A friend of Tiger's

THE POINT OF no return came on July 31, 2007, a date that means nothing to the millions of fans who follow Tiger Woods but was the last real shot he had to avoid the coming storm. From the outside, he was closing in, inevitably, on Nicklaus. But inside his world, a year after his dad died, things were falling apart.

On June 18, Tiger became a father. In July, he flew a porn star to Washington, D.C., according to a tabloid, to meet him during his tournament, the AT&T National. He'd already met many of the mistresses who would come forward two years later. According to The Wall Street Journal, the summer of 2007 is when the National Enquirer contacted his camp to say it had caught him in an affair with a Perkins waitress. Negotiations allegedly began that would kill the tabloid story if Tiger agreed to sit for an interview and cover shoot with Men's Fitness, owned by the same parent company as the Enquirer. He did. The magazine hit newsstands on June 29.

On July 22, he finished tied for 12th at the Open Championship, and then came home. In the weeks afterward, he'd announce that he'd ruptured his left ACL while jogging in Isleworth. His news release did not mention whether he'd been running in sneakers or combat boots. At the time, he chose to skip surgery and keep playing. Tiger's account might be true, as might the scenario laid out in Haney's book: that he tore the ACL in the Kill House with SEALs. Most likely, they're both right. The knee suffered repeated stresses and injuries, from military drills and elite-level sports training and high-weight, low-rep lifting. A man who saw him doing CQD training says, "It's kind of funny, when you have an injury it almost seems like a magnet for trauma. He almost never had something hit his right knee. It was always his left knee that got kicked, or hit, or shot, or landed on. Always the left knee."

Whatever happened, he didn't take a break. Two days before the tournament in Akron, he was in Ohio. That night, July 31, his agent, Mark Steinberg, had people over to his home near Cleveland, including Tiger. According to both Haney's and Williams' books, Steinberg said the time had come for an intervention over Tiger's military adventures. While Steinberg has a reputation as a bully in the golf world, he cares a great deal about his client and friend. This all must have seemed insane to someone who just wanted to manage a great athlete: secret trips to military facilities, running around a golf course in combat boots, shooting guns, taking punches.

That night after dinner, Steinberg took Tiger into his downstairs office, a room in his finished basement. What they talked about remains private. But this was the moment when Tiger could have connected the dots and seen how out of control things had become. Everyone felt good about the talk. Afterward, Haney wrote, Tiger was different and the military trips became less of a distraction.

That's what they thought.

Consider Tiger Woods once more, tabloids snapping grainy long-distance photos, his marriage suddenly in danger and with it the normalcy he lacked everywhere else, his body taking a terrible beating from SEAL training and aggressive weightlifting, a year after losing his father, adrift and yet still dominating all the other golfers in the world. They never were his greatest opponent, which was and always will be a combination of himself and all those expectations he never could control. Tiger won Akron, then won his 13th career major the following week at the PGA Championship in Tulsa, and then, 15 hours after getting home from the tournament, he packed up and flew off again to do CQD training with Dieter. Steinberg's warning was just 13 days old.

EVERYTHING ELSE MIGHT as well have been chiseled in stone on the day he was born. The two knee surgeries in Park City, Utah, a year later. The three back surgeries. The Thanksgiving night he took an Ambien and forgot to erase his text messages, and how that enormous storm started small, with Elin calling numbers in his phone, confronting the people on the other end, including Uchitel's friend Tim Bitici, who was in Vermont with his family when his phone rang. The horrors big and small that followed. The butcher paper taped up over the windows to block the paparazzi. The sheet his crew hung over the name of his yacht. The internet comments he read while driving to Augusta National before the 2010 Masters, obsessed over what people thought. The questions from his kids about why Mommy and Daddy don't live together, and the things he won't be able to protect them from when their classmates discover the internet. The tournament where he shot a 42 on the front nine and withdrew, blaming knee and Achilles injuries.

That day, Steve Williams saw a friend in the parking lot.

"What happened?" his friend asked, incredulous.

"I think he's got the yips, mate," Williams replied.

In the 1,303 days between his father's death and the fire hydrant, Tiger set in motion all those things, and when he can finally go back and make a full accounting of his life, he'll realize that winning the 2008 U.S. Open a year before the scandal, with a broken leg and torn ACL, was the closest he ever got to BUD/S. He could barely walk and he still beat everyone in the world. He won and has never been the same. The loneliness and pain tore apart his family, and the injuries destroyed his chance to beat Nicklaus and to leave fame behind and join the Navy. He lost his dad, and then his focus, and then his way, and everything else came falling down too.

But first, he got one final major.

"I'm winning this tournament," he told his team.

"Is it really worth it, Tiger?" Steve Williams asked.

"F-- you," Tiger said.

John Huet


HE'S BEEN STUCK ever since, in limbo, somewhere between a professional golfer and a retired celebrity. Right now, in early December, he hangs out on the edge of a putting green in the Bahamas, unable to play but still handling his duties as host. That means posing with a motorcycle and the CEO of the company that made it. While the camera crews get ready, Tiger walks onto the green. Zach Johnson and Justin Rose, both friends, knock around some balls and shoot the breeze. The guys talk about putters, about finishes and how that impacts the roll. Tiger knows the questions to ask, having developed a deep reservoir of knowledge that serves no purpose to someone whose body won't cooperate.

As he starts to pose with the motorcycle, Tiger glances back at his friends.

On his wrist, he wears a thin red string, a Buddhist reminder to show compassion and to mind the tongue. Like many things, Tiger keeps his faith to himself -- though he has said he was raised a Buddhist -- so it's hard to know how much he practices or if he ever goes to temple. It's interesting to consider. Buddhists don't believe in heaven or hell, or at least not in the same way as Christians. According to Essential Buddhism, by Diane Morgan, either place can exist on earth, and there are 11 ways for believers to feel pain: lust, hatred, illusion, sickness, decay, death, worry, lamentation, physical and mental anguish, melancholy and grief. Since losing his father, Woods has burned with every single one of these, and in the years since he rammed his car into a fire hydrant, he's suffered nearly all of them all the time. He says he'll be back, and if he is lying to himself, maybe he can be forgiven that delusion, because according to the basic tenets of his religion, he has literally been living through hell.

While the media take photographs of the motorcycle, someone asks him about a golf course in California where Tiger played a tournament many years ago.

"First trophy," Tiger says.

"How old were you?"


HE TALKS A lot about the past now, which is new for someone who moved so fast through his first 40 years that he left people and places behind once they'd served their purpose in his life. Earl often spoke with friends about the strangeness and suddenness of Tiger's exit from their lives, and how when Tiger left Teakwood Street for college, he abandoned his computer and Nintendo, his toys and posters on the wall, and even stray cash. This amazed Earl and made him strangely proud and also melancholy. Tiger had become something like a butterfly; Earl believed that his son had flown away unencumbered. When his tax lawyers advised Tiger to leave California after turning pro and set up his life near Orlando, he just vanished, not even stopping by the old Navy course to say goodbye. "He didn't tell me he was moving to Florida," says the pro, Joe Grohman, "and it broke my heart. I thought I was really close to the family. I didn't get to tell him goodbye. It was just over."

Tiger has cut off coaches and caddies and friends, rarely with a confrontation, just vanishing from their lives. It's not out of spite really; he's focused on where he's supposed to be going. The Western High class of 1994 held its 20-year reunion and made sure Tiger got an invitation in the mail, but he didn't show. Grohman understands. "He's still trying to be Tiger Woods," he says. "There's a time and place for things. There will be a day when he wants to come back to where it all began."

Even 10 years later, the loss of his father still exerts force and pull on his inner life. The anniversary of Earl's death is a time when he can't sleep, staying up all night with his memories. The wounds seem fresh. Tiger spent just 77 minutes on the ground in Kansas saying goodbye to Earl, before hurtling back into a destiny previously in progress. It's nearly certain he hasn't been back since. The sexton who runs the place says he's never seen Woods visit, and staff at the small airport nearby say they haven't seen him either. A book by a People magazine writer said Tiger visited once in 2007, around Mark Steinberg's military intervention, but that report could not be confirmed. Maybe he sneaked in and out, but if not, one day perhaps he'll walk across the field to the place where they left Earl's ashes, between Maude and Miles, in the shade of a bush and near a big red rock. He'll have to find the spot from memory because there is no headstone, even a decade after the funeral. Maybe he wants it private, or is simply unable to take such a final step, but whatever the reason, Tiger Woods never had one placed.

He buried his father in an unmarked grave.


Doug Benc/Getty Images

Duomo/Corbis; Doug Benc/Getty Images; Barrett Emke for ESPN

THE REAL WORK of his life -- how to deal with having been Tiger Woods -- will begin only once he accepts that his golfing career is finished. All driven people experience a reckoning at the end of their life's work, but when that work feels incomplete, or somehow tainted, the regrets can fester with time. This reckoning is coming for Tiger, which worries his friend Michael Jordan, who knows more about the next 10 years of Tiger's life than nearly anyone alive. It's jarring to be dominant and then have it suddenly end. "I don't know if he's happy about that or sad about that," Jordan says. "I think he's tired. I think he really wishes he could retire, but he doesn't know how to do it yet, and I don't think he wants to leave it where it is right now. If he could win a major and walk away, he would, I think."

A few months ago, sitting in his office in Charlotte, Jordan picked up his phone and dialed Tiger's number. It rang a few times and went to voicemail: I'm sorry, but the person you called has a voicemail box that has not been set up yet. He tried twice more, the phone rang five or six times, and then he smiled.

"Playing video games," he said.

They texted in November, the day after a big group went out to dinner at Tiger's restaurant. Tiger got drunk and they all laughed and told stories, and Michael thought Tiger seemed relaxed, which made him hopeful. Tiger talked about his injuries a lot but not much about the future. "The thing is," Jordan says, "I love him so much that I can't tell him, 'You're not gonna be great again.'"

The day after that, Tiger wrote him and both men sounded like the stay-at-home dads they've become.

TW: Thank you and your beautiful wife for coming. Need to do that more often. Thank the good lord for ice packs. I'm in heaven now. Bring babies next time.

MJ: Haha. Any time my brother. Get some rest. We'll bring the kids next time.

TW: I'm in. After school next week one day when the kids don't have soccer practice.

Jordan talks carefully, with no bravado or swagger, trying to say something important and true and empathetic -- maybe hoping his friend will read it? -- without crowding Tiger or saying too much. Jordan struggled and flailed in the years after he quit basketball, feeling like he'd hard-wired himself with all of these urges that now worked against any hope of future happiness. For years, he just tried to pretend like he wasn't lost. Time stretched out in front of him endlessly, and this same emptiness awaits Tiger.

Those who know him best say that Tiger today is happiest during the time he spends with his children. Chris Carlson/AP Images

"What does he do every day?" Jordan asks.

He's quiet and serious.

"I don't know," he says, answering his own question. "I haven't the slightest idea. I do not know."

He worries that Tiger is so haunted by his public shaming that he obsesses over it, perhaps sitting up in the middle of the night reading all the things people write and say about him.

"Rabbit Ears," Michael calls him sometimes.

He hears everything. For Tiger, this dwelling on old mistakes is a path to madness. Nothing can take him back to 2006 and give him a second chance. "That bothers him more than anything," Jordan says. "It looms. It's in his mind. It's a ship he can't right and he's never going to. What can you do? The thing is about T-Dub, he cannot erase. That's what he really wants. He wants to erase the things that happened."

Slowly, year by year, Tiger's name will not be spoken in the same way and with the same frequency. Without a new passion, Tiger just might sit down there in his enormous, empty mansion and slowly go insane. Jordan's post-retirement salvation came because he and his longtime girlfriend, Yvette Prieto, got married. Now they have twins, and he's created a life for himself, something to occupy his time and his thoughts. They are happy together, and more than once Jordan has told Tiger he needs to allow someone new into his circle, to build a new life with a new person and, along the way, find some new perspective about the journey that brought him here.

"He has ..." Jordan says, and he pauses, searching for the right word, "... no companion. He has to find that happiness within his life, that's the thing that worries me. I don't know if he can find that type of happiness. He's gonna have to trust somebody."

TIGER IS NOT totally alone, kept company by memories of the life he once knew and those moments when he is happiest: the time he spends with his daughter, Sam, 8, and his son, Charlie, 7. The best of Earl lives in the actions of his son; in fatherhood, Tiger has equaled and even surpassed his own dad. He is utterly devoted to his children. Every single person interviewed for this story says so. Sam and Charlie never met their grandfather and they don't remember Tiger as a dominant golfer, but they will grow up knowing that their father cares more about them than anything he does on the course.

In the Bahamas, USA Today golf writer Steve DiMeglio saw them riding in a golf cart with Tiger and asked if they'd rather be their dad or soccer star Leo Messi.

"Messi!" Sam said without missing a beat.

"He's playing," Charlie explained.

Tiger laughed and dramatically dropped his head.

Then he joked, "Well, he's right."

He and Elin have a better relationship now, and Tiger wishes he'd have worked to create this bond while they were still together. His friends talk of how much he regrets losing his marriage, especially in those moments when he and Elin are with the kids and he glimpses little flashes of the life he threw away. Now he shares custody, and when the children go back to their mom's place and his big house falls quiet, he's surrounded by people who work for him and trophies he won as a younger, more powerful man.

There's a clear view out the windows past the two swimming pools and hot tub, toward the four greens he had built, a practice facility for a game he's almost finished playing. He's got endless stretches of time now to stare and think. His old house near Orlando, the last place they all lived, stood in a cluster of trees across from the Isleworth driving range. He loved sunsets there, all of them together, his golf having finally created the family he craved as a boy. Elin and Charlie would sit in a cart and watch. Yogi, a labradoodle, would roll in the grass, sniffing around. Sam would hand him golf balls, and he'd hit punch shots for his border collie, Taz, to chase.

The sun would set and they'd all walk together in the shadows toward home.

Wright ThompsonA senior writer for ESPN, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi; he currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Previously, he worked at The Kansas City Star and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In 2001, he graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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