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Sports

Lots of hockey. Lots of golf. Other sports too. 

Tiger's Back

Minivan Dad

This may seem like another Father's Day post because it involves fathers and sons, but it isn't. This is about a round of golf just over 18 years ago.

In March of 1996, I was almost 30. College Kid was just a baby. Passenger Seat Mom and I packed her up and went to Orlando to visit my sister and her family. My parents had bought a house there too. Grandpa Jag (let's call him that!) had a membership at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club, which hosts the PGA Tour every March. We were visiting the week before the tournament, which was then known as the Bay Hill Invitational. 

I'm what you'd call a golf enthusiast. I know some history. I'm kind of a swing junkie (well I did write a book!) I follow the current players and tournaments. I was in heaven at Bay Hill. The course is familiar because we see it on TV every year. The 18th hole is an iconic finishing hole, where things like this happened.

Arnold Palmer also happens at Bay Hill. I was practicing putting on Monday of that week, and so was he. We stood on the practice green, putting in opposite directions to nearby holes. One of the men with him had given him a putter to try, which apparently happened a lot. I made a few, which I thought was impressive considering my hands were shaking. He hit about 6 or 7 putts, all of which stopped within 3 or 4 inches of the hole. None went in. He walked over to get the balls and I cracked, "That looks like a good one if you want to get them close!" He looked up at me, thought about it for a second, then laughed and responded "Yeah, I guess so!" Arnold Palmer!

Grandpa Jag and I played 3 days that week. The last round, on Friday, is still one of the best rounds I've ever played. Wednesday, though? Wednesday was one of the most memorable.

Grandpa Jag and I were hitting a few putts on the practice green, before heading to the range to warm up our swings. One of the rangers very nicely asked us if we would mind teeing off one slot later, making a foursome with another father and son who were guests of the Lodge. Of course we agreed, and headed over to the range.

I was standing on the end closest to the cart parking, my back to the rest of the range. A cart pulled up, with a single bag on it. Sticking out the top of the bag was a stuffed animal headcover on the driver. I recognized it immediately. The headcover's name was Frank, and I knew exactly to whom he belonged. 

It's owner had already won 3 consecutive US Junior Amateur Championships. By the time he and Frank pulled up next to me on the range, he had already gone on to win 2 consecutive US Amateur Championships. That summer, he would win a 3rd. Six consecutive United States Golf Association Championships! In the fall, he would win his first professional tournament. A little over a year later, he would win the Masters. That Wednesday at Bay Hill, though, Tiger Woods was the skinny college kid hitting next to me on the range.

I don't remember the sound the ball made coming off of his clubs. I'm not sure that they actually made a sound that could be categorized by human hearing. His warmup half wedges all landed within ten feet of each other on the range. His drives simply launched into the air, interminably hanging, before landing at the far end of the range. even pro golfers then didn't hit the ball 300 yards routinely like they do now. It was remarkable. We joked a little, mainly about how old I felt watching him swing.

Tiger, a friend, and Tiger's father, Earl, played in front of us that day. We would putt out, then move over to the next tee, and cross paths with Tiger and Earl. We'd exchange a joke or two, compliment their shots, same as any other golfers. If I hit a good drive, I'd have the same shot as Tiger. Of course, he was starting 50 yards behind me. On at least 3 or 4 holes, we would stand on the tee box with only 2 golfers in the fairway ahead of us. A ball would come flying out of the trees and land on the green, followed by Tiger, sauntering up. He hit balls to places my Dad had never even seen. Again, remarkable.

A lot has happened since that day. Tiger has won 14 Major Championships. He has made fortunes of money. He has morphed from the amazing 2-year old on the Mike Douglas show, to the young phenom challenging the greatest records of the sport, to the butt of thousands of jokes. He has gone from being the most respected and worshipped athletes in history to one of the most polarizing.

Tiger announced via his website that he will compete at Congressional next week, in the PGA Tour's Quicken Loans National that benefits his own charitable foundation. It's his first tournament since undergoing microdiskectomy back surgery on April 1. Is he ready? Who knows? We'll see. He has a way of surprising us, for or better or worse.

I'm fairly ambivalent about Tiger now. It's exciting when he plays well, but I'm tired of the constant chatter and banter by writers and commentators trying to tell me what to think. Someday I'll tackle that mess. For now, though, I try to watch dispassionately, analyze his latest swing changes, and keep an image from 1996 in my mind.

To be honest, I don't even remember what I shot that day. I do remember the end of the round though. We finished the 17th hole and walked off the green. Tiger stood on the 18th tee. He hit his tee shot, and held the follow through. I nudged my Dad, so he wouldn't miss it.

Whenever I think of Tiger Woods, that's the image I have. A skinny kid, playing golf with his father in front of me and my Dad, holding his follow-through in the Florida afternoon sun.