Golf Digest, April, 2003
‘My heart is Thai’: a window to Tiger’s soul through his mother
The Masters 2003
It is with deepest regret that I am unable to meet with you on the occasion of your birthday. As you know, I am a professional golfer and I have mandatory contractual appearances that preclude me from visiting you at that time. I trust you understand and hopefully I will be extended another invitation by the Thai government.
As a young boy I was enthralled listening to my father’s stories and of his experiences while on military duty in Thailand. He told me of the ravaging flood that hit northern Thailand during his stay and how he coordinated American military aid. How he assisted with your country’s preparation for the Asian Games by providing military competition for your teams in basketball and track and field.
My mother recounted stories of her youth in Thailand and at age 10 [sic] took me there to see first hand the other half of my cultural heritage. I stood in awe as your vehicle drove past us when we visited the Royal palace grounds. I will never forget the day. I said to my mother, “Some day I am going to meet the king,” and I will.
Although I am an American citizen my heart is Thai. You and your beautiful wife will always be a part of my life. I respect and admire you both.
I wish you the best on your birthday and please have many more.
I was asked to do it,” Tiger said. “Mom got a request.” (Kultida Woods—“Tida” to everyone—changed just one word, substituting respectfully for fondly.)
“It was a hard letter to write,” he said, “from the standpoint of whom you’re writing to: a king. It’s not like you’re writing to a friend or a business acquaintance. It took me a few hours. I started writing it, and then I went back and did it again. I tried to be honest and truthful and talk from the heart, tell him my experiences in Thailand, some of the stories my parents told me. I wanted it to be just right.”
Tiger was surprised when it was published in the newspapers there.
“I thought it was a personal letter. I keep forgetting the global part. I was 20 years old when I came out of college, fairly well-known, but only in golf. Then, one day in Milwaukee, I’m thrown into the arena, into the fire. That’s a dramatic change. There’s no school for this, you know. I had to learn everything on the go. I’m 20, and all of the eyes are looking at me. Everything I do is nit-picked. That’s a tough way to go. I wasn’t able to blend in anymore. People recognized me walking down a street or riding in a car. At that age, it’s a hard change to grasp…. I tried to be a kid while I had a chance to do it. You’re only a child one time. You can never have those days back. To me, for a little while, junk food represented holding on to childhood.”
Tida said, “I raised him as an Asian child.” When I asked her for details, she said, “He know and I know. I don’t care if anyone else know.”
Earl told a gathering after one of the clinics, “Let me introduce a young whippersnapper who’s never been spanked.”
“He’s right,” Tiger said. “He never had to spank me growing up as a kid. Because Mom beat the hell out of my ass. I’ve still got the handprints.”
Mom isn’t the sentimentalist Dad is; she doesn’t cry. “Old man is soft,” she says. “He cry. He forgive people. Not me. I don’t forgive anybody.”
Tida is consistent; she has a code. Even after heart problems and cancer, Earl won’t let go of his cigarettes. Tida has no tolerance for that kind of weakness.
“Dad want to check out first? Fine with me. But I want to stay longer.”
They live apart but are not even legally separated. Earl explains too simply that he doesn’t like Thai food while she does like “a big-ass house.”
Tiger loves them both completely, but may respect Tida even more.
“She’s my little mommy,” he said in the Masters pressroom after the first major victory. She was the one who suggested he wear red on Sundays for luck.
Tiger’s mother offered other suggestions he has embraced: “Go after them, kill them,” she said. “Go for their throat. Don’t let them up. When you’re finished, now it’s sportsmanship.”
Tida is diminutive but easy to spot in Tiger’s gallery, in sharp oranges and reds and blacks and golds, topped by a Bangkok bonnet of white, black or red, as ruby red as the lipstick that sometimes gets on her teeth.
Once she was the only member of his gallery. She is the single foot soldier who has made the whole campaign. When Tiger seemed too good for his age, and the other parents took him for a ringer, Tida was his one rooter on the course. She got in the way sometimes, to the point where there were official discussions in junior circles about where she should walk. At a tournament in Hawaii that matched 1997’s major winners, Ernie Els beat Tiger, Davis Love III and Justin Leonard in a two-day TV show, the highlight coming when someone around the green wouldn’t stay still and Tiger looked up first in fury and then in dismay. When he saw who the culprit was, he moaned, “Mom!”
Ernie looked over at Tiger and said, “You’re grounded.”
Her Thai accent is thick but sweet, delightfully fractured, especially when she tosses in a few coarse or profane bits that had to have been adopted from Earl. Tida declares where she stands. To her, Phil Mickelson is “Plastic Phil.” And she revels in her son’s total mastery over Love. “Tiger steal his heart,” she says gleefully. “He kill Davis’ heart.”
She might ask a passing newspaper reporter: “What you think of Charles Howell III?”
But more often, she repeats: “What you think of my Tiger now?”
She makes the writers laugh, but they have a real and tender affection for her. And the first word almost everybody uses to describe her is “lonely.”
At the original family home in Cypress, Calif., all of the guests would eat before Tida. In the big-ass house, Tida has a niece from Thailand to serve her first.
In a room of pro golfers and their wives, it is easy to see which players married before they were famous. Most of the others, the homely ones included, have a blonde on their arms. Tiger’s tastes run along the company lines, to volleyball players and models. Except in Buick commercials, he has almost never been seen with a brunette.
Tida hasn’t conspicuously embraced any of Tiger’s girlfriends, including law student Joanna Jagoda, who, to the marriage brokers, looked to be better than even-money at one time. Tiger and Joanna parted after the great season of 2000. By 2002, he was traveling with a stunning Swede named Elin Nordegren, who walked the courses with Tida.
“Only one star in Woods family,” Tiger’s mother warns.
If you cross them, you are dead. They are like Joe DiMaggio that way. Tiger is only as self-centered and self-absorbed as the greatest athletes have almost always been. If Woods has a little extra vinegar, perhaps it’s understandable. When one starts off as such a rank outsider in such an elitist environment, some residue of vindictiveness may be unavoidable at the top. Just a touch of a mean streak may be par for the course. And a killer competitor has to be hard. He doesn’t have to be rude. To be a little rude, he has to be a little mean.
Tida never forgives, Tiger seldom does; neither of them ever forgets. They revel in paybacks for the rest of their enemies’ lives.
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN TRYING to identify the biggest difference between Tiger and Jack, it may be this:
A hundred years ago, Nicklaus and I were teamed together in a pro-am at Mason, Ohio. “Look over there,” he said at the ninth hole, pointing out an Associated Press writer, Bob Green, standing by the green. “I have so much respect for that,” Jack said. “The wire service has a deadline every minute, but there’s Bob out on the golf course.”
“He comes out to smoke,” I said.
Nicklaus knew the industry more than a little because he and his dad once visited the AP offices to beg the editors to stop using the sobriquet “Fat Jack.” The wire turned them down. “Will Grimsley was in love with Arnold Palmer,” Nicklaus told me with a shrug, mentioning the AP’s lead sportswriter of the day. “But that’s OK. A lot of people were.” In years to come, Jack never took it out on Grimsley, the AP or anyone. The galleries don’t recall ever rooting against Nicklaus (“Miss it, Fat Guts!”), because he never reminded them.
If it were Tiger, the AP would be dead.
Golf is a gritty sport brushed over by a gentlemanly veneer. If a silly joke stitched in small letters on the back of a caddie’s hat (“Tiger Who?”) is enough to make you want to grind Vijay Singh into the dust, not just that day but every day, over and over again, forever, the culture at least requires that you do it with a certain smile. Tiger has mastered the etiquette. In every sense of the phrase, he knows how to play the game. As a matter of fact, there are longtime observers, going back to Woods’ peewee tournaments, who actually believe he was better off when he didn’t like anybody and nobody liked him. He has assimilated to a point that, whether they should be or not, the opponents aren’t quite as afraid of him as they once were.
One veteran Tiger watcher, who likes Woods enough to say his good features swamp his flaws, nonetheless theorizes that Tiger holds onto those flaws as purposefully as he does a golf club. “He doesn’t want to change anything, because he feels it’s all part of the perfect combination of what it takes to be who he is. If he got rid of his meanness, his pettiness, his cheapness, it would be like, `Well, maybe I’ll lose something then.’ “
Barbra Streisand might give a thought to improving her nose, but what if that changed her voice?
Regarding “cheapness,” Tiger doesn’t seem any more burdened by his wide-spread reputation than Jack Benny used to be. Northern Irishman Darren Clarke, whom Woods fondly calls “D.C.,” was asked once if he ever tried to get inside his friend’s head. “It’s a bit like his wallet,” Clarke replied. “Tiger doesn’t open it too often.” Seeing that quote, Woods undoubtedly laughed.
In fairness, this should also be said: Near the end of the 2001 season, when Tiger won the $1 million first prize at his own tournament, he immediately endorsed the check back to his foundation.
Like the wallet and the head, Tiger’s spiritual side isn’t laid open too often. But, in a Christmas ritual, Tida and Tiger annually meet in Los Angeles to visit a Buddhist temple. Tiger learned enough from the Thai monk there to want to know more. In Escondido, just north of San Diego, he found an American Buddhist whom he can more easily understand and through whom he can continue to pursue the side of himself that is his mother.
In the 2000 PGA Championship, Tiger and Nicklaus were paired together on Thursday. Jack’s mother, Helen, died the day before at 90. “She was a tough old girl,” Nicklaus said. “I got the word yesterday in the practice round, on the fourth hole. It was just Glen Day and me out there, and I didn’t want to leave him on the golf course by himself. I finished up the front nine, just sort of going through the motions, then got on the phone with my sister, trying to make arrangements and do the things that you do. Play or don’t play? I had no desire to play, I promise you. But Mom would have said play. My dad passed away 30 years ago. He was always in the forefront. She was always in the background. She and I talked a lot. She never missed a golf tournament on television.”
As they walked, Nicklaus told Tiger, “I know how much you love your father. Don’t forget your mother.”
Woods said, “I never do.”
Tiger’s heart is Thai.
Excerpted with permission from the book In Search of Tiger: A Journey Through Golf with Tiger Woods, [c]2003 by Tom Callahan, 256 pages, $23.95, to be published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.
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