“Do you know Tiger Woods?” is a question I am often asked and my reply is the same every time. “I know him, yes. I see him at tournaments eight or ten times each year. I watch him play and I attend his press conferences at the end of the round.
“But do I really know him? No. Tiger Woods is world-class at talking without saying anything. He can spot a trick question as easily as he can read the line of a slick downhill 30-foot putt. He protects himself with his very keen mind and around him has been erected an impenetrable screen of employees and friends. He is the best-known, least-known athlete in the world.”
Now, though, Tiger Woods has allowed the veil of secrecy to be lifted a little. Speaking at the launch of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, a computer game from EA Sports, Tiger Woods reveals more about himself than he normally does. For example, he discloses that he always carries one of his father’s teeth with him. “The tooth is a flattened one, which he gave me when I was pretty young,” Tiger Woods said. “I think I’ve been carrying it about with me since I was about 12. I keep it with me at all times.”
Tiger Woods wants to be remembered not for all the major championship victories he will have won by the time he retires but for what he did for children through the Tiger Woods Foundation. “Golf is such a great part of my life, but it’s merely a vehicle that allows me to do other things, including the foundation,” he said. “If I can have a positive and lasting impact in children’s lives through that, then that’s what I’d like to be remembered for.
“Our Start Something programme has more than four million kids involved and we want to take that global in the next year and a half. When I do hang up my clubs, I’ll work even more closely on the foundation.”
There is no surprise in hearing him say that he expects to get better as a golfer because he has been saying that for years. There was nothing we had not heard before about his becoming a father and how, yes, he does change nappies. And recently Tiger Woods has talked of his friendship with Roger Federer, the world No 1 tennis player, whom he describes “as a joy to watch”.
But it was a surprise to hear him say that if he had not become a golfer he might have ended up in the military, like his father, Earl. “I like the idea of serving my country,” Tiger Woods said.
Tiger and Earl Woods were father and son, mentor and pupil, friends. Earl was his best friend, Tiger says, and was partly responsible for his competitive instinct. “My father was in the special forces, where if you don’t have that [competitive] desire you die. He was always pretty tough and I absolutely never, ever let him beat me. He wouldn’t do that for me, so there is no way I’m doing that for him. But my mom was always the person I was more scared of. She has always been incredibly competitive, which I think is just the Asian way.”
In 1998, while in South Africa, Tiger and Earl Woods were invited to Nelson Mandela’s house for lunch. Earl, who once likened Tiger to Gandhi, would later make the extraordinary statement that “it was the first time Tiger met a human being who was equal to him, who was as powerful as Tiger is”.
Fortunately, Tiger is less vainglorious. He admitted that he was awestruck by Mandela. “He invited us to spend the afternoon with him,” Tiger Woods said. “It was an amazing, amazing afternoon. I guess it is fair to say I was pretty awestruck then. We talked mainly about his incarceration, what he went through and how he dealt with it.
“Everyone’s read about it, but having it told to you by the man himself is a totally different thing. He still calls now and then just to see how I’m doing. It’s a little bit weird that Nelson Mandela is on the end of the line.”
Tiger Woods is one of the most normal successful sportsmen you could hope to meet. He washes his car himself and makes his bed. He said that because he is seen so often in shops, cinemas, restaurants in Florida, where he lives, and southern California, where he spends time with his mother, he is rarely bothered by excessive attention from fans seeking autographs. Besides, he said, he likes it.
He is an uncomplicated man with a rare talent to play one sport better than anyone else. But when he is not doing that he is doing what other parents do - spending time with Sam, his daughter. He said that he will not put pressure on Sam or any other children he and Elin may have to play any sport they may not want to.
“As long as they’re happy in what they’re doing,” Tiger Woods said. “My parents always encouraged me to try other things when I was growing up, so I ran track and cross country, played baseball. I soon knew I didn’t have the same love for that as I did for golf. As long as my kids enjoy what they do, that’s the only thing that concerns me.”