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Original Issue

Pops' Last Lesson

I suppose we couldcelebrate the life of Earl Woods with a whiskey and ginger ale, which he loved.Or with jazz, which he loved. Or with a long drag on a cigarette, which he alsoloved too much, seeing as how smoking probably figured in his death last weekat 74.

Or we could do itwith tears, since with Earl there was always more crying than on the first dayof kindergarten. Every time I saw him get up in front of a crowd to talk aboutTiger, he'd wind up bawling. And every time, Tiger would hop up, grab the mikeand go, "That's my Pops. I love him."

I suppose we couldremember Earl as perhaps the most famous black man in America who is celebratedsolely for his fatherhood. In sports, all we hear about is the black father whoruns, but Earl was constantly there, famously there, lovingly there.

Hell, Earlcouldn't leave the kid's side. He never left him with a babysitter. Wound upquitting his job for the kid, mortgaged the house twice, took out home equityloans. He couldn't bear to punish Tiger--that was his wife's job. Earl washopelessly in love with the boy he called the chosen one.

You wondered whatEarl's other kids thought of that--the chosen one. Because those three kidsfrom his first marriage--Earl Jr., 50; Kevin, 48; and daughter Royce, 47--werenot the chosen ones. They hardly knew him. A career Green Beret, he'd be gonefor six months to a year at a time. "I wasn't around," he once told me."I'd come back, and I'd find three totally different children."

Maybe Earl didn'tknow how to be a father the first time around. He was the youngest of six kids,and both his parents were dead by the time he was 13. He learned to be alone.But when he married Kultida, a Thai secretary, and got a mulligan forfatherhood at 42, he made the most of it.

Earl was fun toplay with--gave me a lesson once, too--and even more fun in the bar afterward.And Tiger loved his burly playmate from the start. Even as a toddler, he hadhis Pops' phone number at the office memorized, so he could call and beg toplay together after Earl got off work. Earl had 1,000 crazy games to play onthe course. He needed to. Tiger was beating him by age 11.

But it killed Earlto be called "the dad who built the greatest golfer ever." No, he wastrying to build a kid who would be kind and happy and responsible. He gets anA+ for that. But much trickier still: He kept his Mozart from burning out.

Never once did hetell Tiger to practice. Never once told him to try harder. He and Tida wouldwithhold golf if his homework wasn't done. Golf was the dessert Tiger got whenhe ate all his vegetables.

Together, fatherand son started a fund of trust. Tiger trusted his dad when Earl tried all hispsychological training on him--dropping his golf bag as Tiger swung, callinglike a crow on his backswing, rolling stray balls at his putter. And Earltrusted Tiger, who would put his pop four feet in front of him at clinics, havehim hold his hands up like goal posts and hit full flop shots between them.

You think Earl didall this to get rich? Then why didn't he ever leave that little house inCypress, Calif., the one he was living in when Tiger was born? No, Earl did itbecause golf's Stevie Wonder fell into his big lap. He did it for the threekids' childhoods he missed. And maybe he did it to make up for all thefather-son days he missed when his own dad died.

And when Tiger hithis mid-20s and started to pull away--moved away from that little house all theway to Florida--Earl nodded proudly, but secretly ached. "It's sad in away," Earl was quoted as saying. "This is what I've prepared for.Still, it leaves a hole because he's not there."

Now, Tiger mustknow exactly how he felt.

But more than allelse, the thing Earl will be remembered for is his hugs. He did for hugs whatMrs. Fields did for cookies.

Remember the onehe gave the triumphant Tiger coming off 18 at the 1997 Masters? That hug alwayschokes me up. Earl swallowed him in his huge arms and reminded us that thisbaby-faced, ice-blooded hit man was still somebody's little boy. From then on,those hugs became the one place this new god in spikes knew he could go to hidefrom the cameras and the pressure, the one place he knew he could feel lovedand wanted and safe. Bet Tiger could use one right now.

And that's thebest way to celebrate Earl Woods's life, by finding your kids right now--nomatter how old--and giving them one of those great, smothering, lungbuster EarlSpecials. See if you can squeeze the Skittles out of them.

Because all kidsneed to be reminded that they don't have to be Tiger Woods to be the chosenone.

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It killed Earl to be called "the dad who built thegreatest golfer ever." No, he was trying to build a kid who would be kindand happy and responsible. He gets an A+.

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