SHANGHAI, CHINA | Tiger Woods is seldom wrong with his facts but the error he made was understandable. During a break from his Tai-Chi photo shoot on the eve of last week’s WGC-HSBC Champions at Sheshan, he was recalling the first time he had met Lee Westwood, the player who had just taken his No. 1 spot on the world rankings.
“It was at the Walker Cup,” he said, “Porthcawl, 1995.”
“Not possible,” ventured this correspondent, who was pretty sure of her ground in that Westwood barely caught the eye of England’s amateur selectors, let alone their Great Britain and Ireland equivalents.
“Are you sure,” checked Woods.
Westwood, when he was consulted, was able to explain why Woods had got it wrong. There was another man of Worksop with whom Woods was getting confused – Martin Foster. The latter, who at one point had Lee’s father, John, on his bag when he was on the Challenge Tour, had played in the match of 1995. He had come up against Buddy Marucci in both of the singles while Woods had two games against Gary Wolstenholme.
Woods was right with his next call. He said that he and his old friend Mark O’Meara had played against Nick Faldo and Westwood in the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama. It was in the second day’s foursomes and, for the record, they lost to the English pair 2 and 1.
Woods mentioned, lightly, that the Westwood he had played that day had been a slim one. “He then put on weight before taking it off again, just as he lost as his game before finding it again. His golf was always pretty darned good but he’s put all the pieces together. He’s been by far the most consistent player over the last couple of years.”
Woods did not disagree with the notion that both he and Westwood had something important in common in good golfing fathers. Neither Earl nor John had ever dumped his offspring on the practice ground and told him to get on with things on his own. When Westwood got in a technical tangle as he plummeted from fourth in the world to 266th – he saw too many different coaches – it was his father who stepped in to take him back to basics. After that, Lee returned to his original teacher, Pete Cowen.
“My father,” said Woods, “was exactly the same in knowing my game inside out and he, too, knew when to step away. It was one of his great strengths that whenever he passed me on to a coach, he always took it that the coach knew more than he did. I might have told him that there was something I didn’t like about what I was being taught but, every time, he would leave it for me to sort out. He would say, ‘It’s your responsibility, you deal with it.’ The same applied with caddies. He refused to get involved.”
That Woods has never fallen out of love with the game, is something he puts down to his dad, some of whose instructions he is still decoding four years after his death.
“He would often speak in riddles to make me think about what he was saying and you’d be amazed at how frequently something he said years ago will suddenly click with me today.”
There was a recent incidence when he was on the practice ground at Isleworth with his two children, Sam and Charlie. As he was working with them, so he experienced an almost uncanny revelation as to how and why his father had taught him to do precisely the same things that he was now trying to teach.
He went on to mention that it had been common for Earl to make an instruction double as a lesson in life. “He would tell me that if I could only learn to put any on-course anger behind me, it would help with my schoolwork. I would master far more if I could keep a calm, clear head.”
But surely it was his mother, who did the necessary pushing when it came to his schoolwork? “People are right,” he said, “when they say that my mother was the disciplinarian but my father’s rather more subtle approach worked pretty well.”
When Woods was asked how he was progressing in the matter of getting his troubled life back on track, he said again that he sees himself as “a better person than I was this time last year.” He talked of having had “a good look at myself, where I was and how I was raised.”
There was the impression that whatever conclusions he may have drawn about other facets of upbringing, he could not be more convinced that the way his father taught him his early golf was as good as it could get.
“If there’s one key, something I would pick out above everything else,” he said, “it’s the way he made the game and all the hard work fun.”
You could see that fun flowing through those golfing veins as he made four birdies in six holes on the back nine of his opening 68 at Sheshan. Things were going the right way as he set out – seemingly with a new vigor – on achieving his ultimate target of bettering Jack Nicklaus’ haul of 18 majors.