Earl Woods once told me, as I complimented him on the sterling rehab of his Windermere, Fla., digs, that he had everything he ever wanted. Fame. Fortune. Family. A room with a view.
There was just one problem: "About 20 years too late," he lamented.
It was the only time in the 12 years of my friendship with Earl, who passed away earlier today after a lengthy battle with cancer, that he revealed even a hint of regret about his life, one that touched and influenced many. Mortality can bring even the seemingly invincible to a screeching halt at the intersection of truth and reality.
Earl never paid much attention to stop signs or road maps. He attended Kansas State University on a baseball scholarship when the Big Eight Conference -- and every other league in this country, for that matter -- withheld the welcome mat to minorities. He survived not one but two tours of duty in Vietnam and a difficult divorce that left him estranged from three children. Earl's marriage to a Thai beauty produced his fourth child (Tiger), and Earl proclaimed him a golf champion unlike any other while he was still in the womb, although the game had a horrid history of exclusion.
He spoke out against racial intolerance, abhorred ignorance, and took every occasion to celebrate even the most mundane victory, realizing that for every hurdle cleared there were a dozen more waiting. He chain-smoked after two heart bypass surgeries and prostate cancer. He never read the fat- or cholesterol-content labels on the back of packaging. He lived by intuition. He died that way, too.
We met in January of 1995 as a result of that same intuition. A month earlier Earl telephoned to offer his approval of a cover story I had written for Golf World honoring Tiger as the magazine's "Man of the Year."
"Hello there, young blood, nice job on the story about Tiger," he said. "How busy are you?"
After giving Earl what must have seemed to him my schedule for all of '95, I asked why he had inquired.
"Thought I might ask you to help me write a book," he said.
"On second thought, I'm not that busy," I said.
Earl grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and guided me through a myriad of minefields. More important, we forged a bond based on mutual respect and trust. Tiger became the youngest Masters winner on April 13, 1997. The next day he and Earl appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" trumpeting the release of "Training A Tiger." Instant bestseller for Earl. Instant credibility for me.
Through the years Earl filled my mental notebook with bits of homespun wisdom, brotherly advice and awareness of how to deal with his son. Rarely was he wrong.
He warned me that Tiger's doghouse has one way in and no way out. Several of Tiger's colleagues and more than one ex-girlfriend can attest to the veracity of that statement.
He predicted Tiger's impact on the game and that his philanthropy would endear him to millions. Correct on both counts.
Earl was a teacher, philosopher, warrior and loyal friend. Contrary to his Green Beret training, he had a kind heart and was generous to a fault. When I needed a down payment for a home, it was Earl who loaned me the money. He demanded only one thing: honesty. Don't believe I ever disappointed him. He had a great sense of humor and could laugh at circumstances others might find humorless.
During the final round of the 1996 NCAA Championships in Ooltewah, Tenn., Earl sat on a hill overlooking a hole that Tiger was in the process of butchering. What began as a slight chuckle quickly grew into a side-splitter.
"What's so funny?" I asked, failing to see the hilarity in Tiger's huge lead over Rory Sabbatini slipping away before our very eyes.
"My poor son," he said, shaking his head as if it were an inside joke.
Although Earl loved to flex the muscle afforded him as father of the most influential person in sport, I don't believe he ever took himself seriously. He could be mischievous and downright bawdy in the company of close friends.
He even found humor in his declining health.
"I've been stuck everywhere but the bottom of my feet," he said. "I feel like a pin cushion."
Whether it was his covert training as a Green Beret or instinctive ability to keep secrets, Earl proved the perfect confidant. There was a sense that he always knew where the bodies were buried, but the most he would relinquish were age, rank and serial number. Your insecurities and shortcomings were in good hands with Earl.
Not too long ago I asked Earl if he ever thought about his legacy. "I don't mean Tiger," I needled. "We both know that Tida had as much or more to do with Tiger being the person he is than you."
He mumbled something under his breath then said, "Legacies are for dead people. Hell, I'm not dead yet."
Truth is, Earl cheated death so many times he thought it was his birthright. I never met anyone more optimistic or determined. He preached dreaming big dreams and life's unlimited potential. It penetrated Tiger's soul. Mine, too.
"Pete," he said upon the release of "Training A Tiger." "Do you realize you'll forever be linked with Tiger?"
I'm most proud to forever be linked with father, mother and son.
I never met anyone more courageous than Earl Woods. He battled cancer with the same tenacity he displayed in times of war. Toward the end he eschewed painkillers, depending upon his own willpower and God's grace to take him quietly into the night. Before he died, Earl freed those closest to him from any and all guilt. He wanted them to go on with life and cling only to the pleasant memories of a true fighter who loved his family and friends enough to give them his best.
Just as he taught Tiger, his best was always good enough, for Earl's was a life well-lived.
Pete McDaniel is a senior writer for Golf Digest magazine.