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Tiger As a Cub

By: Jeff Shelley


I once volunteered for a two-year gig on the Seattle Municipal Golf Advisory Committee in 1992. My intentions were honorable - I wanted all-new irrigation systems for the city's three 18-hole golf courses, while getting the operations of the facilities away from the city, which viewed the courses as cash cows and rarely made capital improvements - this during a time when golf was hot.

What could be wrong with that? Two birds with the same number of stones - redo the watering systems and fairways/tees; set up a heretofore unrealized scenario in Seattle: Improve historic golf courses and upgrade 500-plus acres of golf property in a city with limited physical space, phenomenal physical attributes, a rich history in the game.

Two years later, we did that, compelling Seattle officials to endorse a nonprofit operational arrangement for 81 holes spread from the South End to up past Northgate. Unfortunately, the nonprofit was dumped for mismanaging funds, raising green fees a disturbing 60 percent during its thankfully brief tenure, and not making the improvements it was formed to do. Essentially, Seattle golf during this period was in the middle of the Pacific: no tsunamis but deep in the doldrums - all while setting adrift thousands of golfers.

(Today, Seattle's municipal program is evolving for the better, having a chance to succeed thanks to folks who, unlike their predecessors, know and care about golf.)

This distant-past period of my golf volunteering was, in the long run, painful. But there were perks. One was having the chance to meet and marvel at the player who would soon take the sport of golf to a whole 'nother level. My B&W photos on 35-millimeter film are evidence I was there when Tiger first came to Seattle.

As part of our outreach to junior golfers - and to show the city the game was more than another slab on the pork barrel - we arranged a visit to Jefferson Park (Fred Couples' kiddie course) by a 16-year-old golfing phenom named Eldrick "Tiger" Woods.

The arrangements were made through Jefferson Park's Fir State Golf Club, one of the nation's oldest African American golf associations. The club's home course - designed by Tom Bigelow, the architect of fabled Medinah No. 2 and subject of a recent biography - is slightly longer than 6,000 yards and a par of 70. One of America's first municipal golf courses offers some very fine views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains from its perch atop Beacon Hill in Seattle's south end.

The urban neighborhood around it harbors a bag-full of characters, and some pretty serious golfers.

A Tiger Roams Jefferson Park

About a dozen yellow school buses transported young, overwhelmingly black kids: what seemed like thousands of screaming, excited kids disgorged beside the temporary grandstands we'd set up. The event was held on Jefferson's short course, a pseudo par-3 of about 14 acres off Beacon Avenue.

In those days, Tiger and Earl were inseparable. Earl, the grizzled Vietnam vet, was a martinet. But never in a bad way. He was one of the millions of ex-GI fathers who wanted the best for their kids. Tiger, save for an amazing ability to hit a golf ball where he wanted and for whatever distance, was just like the rest of us: trying to cope with a persistent and often pessimistic dad.

Earl's shtick at Jefferson Park was like the other exhibitions the father and son staged that year. By then, they had it down pat. He held the microphone and emceed, telling the kids to nodding parents to stay in school and say no to drugs (how come these subjects are intertwined?). Mind your parents.

Once past these public service messages, the best part began.

Earl started it by walking about 60 yards from his son. Tiger then began firing shots at his father, the grandstanded kids watching intently and wondering whether the kid with the golf club was going to bean his father. From his in-the-line-of-fire vantage, Earl commanded his son to try different ways to hit a golf ball, gradually retreating closer to Beacon Avenue on the course's east side as the clubs' loft degree got lower. Like an automaton, Tiger executed cut shots, hard hooks, gentle fades, slices, soft draws, back-spinners, dead balls, and low-running scooters.

(Funny how what comes around had already gone around at this old Seattle golf course. Twenty years prior, Couples mastered these very same shots while creatively picking Jefferson Park's driving range. At that time, Couples' father managed Jefferson Park, and one of his 12-year-old son's primary duties was retrieving range balls. Instead of actually bending over and exerting them into a bucket as some kids would do, the popular player who'd later be known as "Boom-Boom" slapped the balls with a 9-iron back toward the concrete-mat tees. Freddie hit balls located by the range netting, right- and left-handed, bending them every which way but loose to their assigned place.)

Tiger made all those shots and more, obedient, as always, to his father.

As the program wore on, Earl stood about 200 yards out - about 6-iron distance (even then) for his protégé. Earl then moved underneath Jefferson Park's stately fir trees, telling Tiger to unleash the 1-iron and hit across the diagonal expanse of the rectangular-shaped course.

After two shots loudly slammed against the cars parked on Beacon Avenue, Earl emerged from the trees, yelling, "Stop, Tiger, Stop!" Earl knew well the power his son could unleash, and wanted everyone there - especially the youngsters - to share this knowledge, even if it meant dinging some unlucky sedans.

The exhibition ended, and Tiger milled amongst the kids, treated like a teen idol. It was apparent even then that golf had a new hero. And, as it turned out, someone who meant even more to the game.