AUGUSTA, GA – Tiger Woods and his reconstructed leg held out for another day in the Masters, overcoming a disastrous forehand nine to achieve the chop and enter the weekend’s nine shots off the lead. To watch him on Friday, agonizing but still sober, we were supposed to watch someone fight… The track, the wind, is the same. Across California, a retired golf pro recognized this show of boldness and thought of his old friend Earl Woods.
“He would be very proud,” Joe Grohmann said Friday. “As for the physical ailments the tiger went through, and all that other nonsense, the earl would be out of his mind now.”
Most of those who follow golf know the story of Earl Woods, the green beret and veteran who raised the best golfer in the world. Even though Earl passed away nearly 16 years ago, people who knew him couldn’t help but think of him as they watched Tiger play Augusta National this week. The earl loved to struggle, realizing in his bones that a wounded middle-aged man completing two rounds of golf showed more greatness than escaping from a field in those faded days of youth and amazement.
Longtime, Earl and Grohmann got together through rough days at the range, meeting at Seal Beach Navy golf course near Woods’ home in Cypress, California. One day while Earl was hitting balls, he turned around to the pro boss.
“Joe, have you met my son before?” Asked.
Tiger stood out of range, alone and refused to look up, as Earl explained to his friend, “When he’s on tour, he’ll have to play through the distractions.”
Earl liked to make noises to try to throw the tiger away, to get into his head, and soon after meeting Tiger, Joe asked him, “Does he really do that with every shot?”
Tiger replied, “I don’t know.” “I haven’t heard anything in two years.”
That’s when Joe learned. They dealt with a player once in a generation.
Earl and Tiger spent every day together on the Navy course, playing rounds and hitting balls, and Grohmann was their almost constant companion for those years, beginning when Tiger was thirteen and continuing until he turned professional.
They would often add one of the Earl’s old military companions as the fourth and only burn in the daylight. The group would gather at the pub to walk around, the men would order drinks and Tiger would sit there with his cola. Sometimes Joe and Tiger were the only two people in the cabaret, which didn’t have much traffic due to the closure of military bases in the area. They would play across the suburb from one corner of the property to another, or maybe just camp out at No. 8 for hours and hit the stakes. Tiger remembers, at about age 15 or 16, he went from landing 20 yards behind Grohmann to two weeks later, 20 yards forward.
“You pissed me off,” Grumman said with a laugh.
He felt close to something powerful, the future of golf standing by, and then one day, it just ended. During the tiger’s rise, many people were left behind.
“He didn’t tell me he was going to Florida and it broke my heart,” Grohmann said. “I thought I was too close to family. I couldn’t tell him goodbye. It was just over. I miss that kid. Those were the fun days.”
Grohmann often had fellow mourners. His friend, Earl, struggled a lot when his son also left home, going out into the world to become Tiger Woods. “I would stop and see them,” Grohmann said. “You could feel it. There was a sense of loss. There was sadness. It was bittersweet: ‘Oh my God, we miss the baby.’ We fed his energy.”
Stop and think again about Earl.
“I wish he lived longer,” he said.
Earlier this week, Grohmann came to Augusta to do the annual Veterans Golf Event. On Monday, he visited the course and followed Tiger on his training tour. Grohman watched a short game that looked like the old days and was concerned when Tiger couldn’t really get around his driver, causing him to splash the ball. He loved seeing support pouring in from the galleries.
“I think the level of excitement is back to what it was back in the day,” he said.
On Tuesday, he found Tiger on the training field, working on his short game and hitting strikes. Woods didn’t know Joe was there, only ten feet away. They haven’t spoken in years. The last time was on Earl’s heels. I asked Joe if he was trying to get Tiger’s attention.
“I’m not ready yet,” he says.
impose oneself. For the many people who have helped Tiger so little along the way, their interaction with him remains the most important part of their lives. The resurrection of the tiger, their conquest of the scandal, back injuries and potentially fatal car wrecks, have them all remembered.
I spoke by phone Friday with a Vietnamese immigrant in Tacoma, Washington, named Phuoc Vuong. His father was a decorated soldier who saved the life of the Earl of Woods in Vietnam. Everyone knew Fong’s father as a “tiger”. It is the namesake of Tiger Woods. Fong said he long ago earned media accreditation at a Pacific Northwest golf tournament and went to a tiger press conference. Vuong sat in the second row and did not raise his hand or introduce himself. He only wanted to be close at least once to the man who now carried his father’s name to the world.
Tiger never knew he was there, just as he never knew that one of the many faces at the Augusta Show on Mondays and Tuesdays belonged to his mentor and old friend.
Grohman is now retired and moving to Florida, randomly a mile or so from the Medalist Club, Tiger’s home track. Now he is watching the masters and packing boxes. He thinks the time has passed, and he has to find a way to connect, to just sit and laugh at the old times, raise a glass to the Earl, and let all the old mischief fade away. They are all different people than they were on the Navy course.
Over the past two days, Grohmann has seen the broken, reconstructed 46-year-old he first met when he was 13. Tiger bogey has seen four of the first five holes. He shot 39 in the front nine today, and he’s looking forward to not getting a chance to play at the weekend, only to slowly return those hits. After a long day he finished equal two for the Tour and one for the Championship. He left the path and went inside. Someone asked him how he felt.
“Woe,” he said, extending the word.
He laughed and kind of stumbled for a moment.
“I don’t feel as good as I’d like to feel,” he said.
Tiger said he needed a moment of light, which he was able to find since he was driving Grohmann in Cypress. Grohmann understands as much as anyone that the strange saga of Tiger began with, because he saw it in the beginning. So, to see him continue this, a damaged but determined ship, fills him with joy. Two more brutal and agonizing days await Woods and everyone who cares for him. It’s not even certain that Tiger can finish this tournament, although he believes he can win it for the sixth time.
Grohmann’s voice rose on Friday as he looked forward to the weekend.
“We didn’t even know if he’d be able to keep his foot and there he is,” he said. “That’s bigger than Bobby Jones. If he wins this thing it will be the biggest story in golf ever.”