Standing between two gravestones, Mike Mohler drove a posthole digger deep into the dirt, twisting it like a corkscrew. It was Friday, May 5, 2006, and warm temperatures had softened the earth at Sunset Cemetery in Manhattan, Kansas. Clump by clump, the balding forty-four-year-old sexton meticulously dug a grave, piling the dirt beside it. In twenty-four hours, the ashen remains of the city’s most famous son would be laid to rest there. Hardly anyone knew the burial was happening, and Mohler aimed to keep it that way.
The night before, Mohler had been home watching television when his phone rang. It was about nine p.m., and the caller didn’t identify herself. “We have a burial coming your way,” she said.
An odd way to begin a call, thought Mohler. Especially one made to his home at such a late hour.
“What’s the name of the deceased?” he asked.
“I can’t tell you that,” the woman said.
“Well, I can’t help you if you won’t give me a name,” he told her.
“I can’t do that unless you sign confidentiality papers,” she said.
Mohler told her that wouldn’t be necessary. The state had required him to sign documents promising confidentiality when he became a sexton seventeen years earlier.
“I need to know who I’m burying to even know if they have a plot here,” he said.
She assured Mohler that the deceased had a burial plot. Then Mohler heard a male voice in the background say: “Just tell him who he’s burying.”
“I’m calling on behalf of Tiger Woods,” the woman told Mohler. “His father has passed.”
Lieutenant Colonel Earl Dennison Woods
died of a heart attack at his home in Cypress, California, on May 3, 2006. He was seventy-four years old and had been in failing health, his body weakened by cancer and his longtime affection for alcohol and cigarettes. A Green Beret who served two tours in Vietnam, Earl achieved worldwide acclaim for his almost mythical role in raising the most famous golfer of all time. He was notorious for making outlandish statements, like the time he predicted in Sports Illustrated that his then twenty-year-old son would have more influence on the world than Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, or Buddha.
“He is the Chosen One,” Earl told the magazine. “He will have the power to impact nations.”
Those were overwhelming expectations. Yet Tiger repeatedly said that no one in the world knew him better than his father, the man he frequently
referred to as his “best friend”
and “hero.” Together they shared one of the most memorable moments in sports history. Immediately after Tiger sank his final putt to win the 1997 Masters by a record twelve strokes, Earl gave him an iconic bear hug. In what was the most-watched golf broadcast in US history, an estimated forty-three million viewers—almost 15 percent of all American households—witnessed father and son sobbing in each other’s arms as Earl said,
“I love you, son.” Dozens of golf telecasts had similarly ended with the two of them embracing and Earl whispering those same four words.
But Mike Mohler didn’t watch golf tournaments. He just wasn’t a fan of the game. He’d never even picked up a club. Still, he admired Tiger Woods, and he took great pride in digging the elder Woods’s grave. Using a cemetery map, Mohler had located
Earl’s burial lot—block 5, lot 12, grave 02—right between his parents, Miles and Maude Woods. Since taking over as sexton in 1989, Mohler had dug more than two thousand graves. Earl’s would be a lot smaller than most: he had been cremated. Tiger and his mother, Kultida, were
flying from Southern California with a shallow
ten-inch-by-ten-inch square wooden box that contained Earl’s ashes. Mohler was ready for them. After nearly an hour of digging, he had fashioned a grave that resembled a miniature elevator shaft. It was
twelve inches long by twelve inches wide, and forty-two inches deep. Using a shovel, he scraped away the loose dirt from the sides, making the edges ruler-straight.
The next day, at around noon, two limousines pulled up to an old section of the cemetery. Tiger; his wife, Elin; and Tiger’s mother got out of the first car, and Earl’s three children from his first marriage exited the second. Mohler and his wife, Kay, met them. Near the end of the twenty-minute ceremony, Kultida handed Mohler the wooden box containing her husband’s ashes. He placed it in the hole and added cement. With the family looking on, Mohler carefully packed the hole with dirt, leveled off the top, and covered it with a piece of sod. The family then filed back into the limousines and—after a brief stop at Earl’s childhood home—returned to the airport.
Days later, when word got out that Earl Woods had been interred, the local business that produced headstones and gravestones—an outfit called Manhattan Monuments—anticipated an order for a large granite monument. They called Mohler, but he had no information. Neither Tiger nor his mother had left any instructions for a headstone.
At first, Mohler thought the family just needed time to figure out what they wanted. Everyone grieves differently, he knew. But five and then ten years passed, and the family still had not ordered a grave marker.
“There is no gravestone,” Mohler said in 2015. “Not for him. His grave isn’t marked at all. The only way to tell where Earl Woods is buried is to know where to look for the corner markers buried in the earth. You have to have a map to find them.”
In the end, Earl Dennison Woods was buried in the Kansas dirt in an unmarked grave. No stone. No inscription. Nothing.
“It’s like he’s not even there,” said Mohler.
Tiger Woods was the kind of transcendent star that comes around about as often as Halley’s Comet. By almost any measure, he is the most talented golfer who ever lived, and arguably the greatest individual athlete in modern history. For a fifteen-year span—from August 1994, when he won his first of three consecutive US Amateur Championships as an eighteen-year-old high school senior, to the early-morning hours of November 27, 2009, when he crashed his SUV into a tree and effectively ended the most dominant run in the history of golf—Woods was a human whirlwind of
heart-stopping drama and entertainment, responsible for some of the most memorable moments in the history of televised sports.
Woods will forever be measured against Jack Nicklaus, who won more major championships. But the Tiger Effect can’t be measured in statistics. A literary comparison may be more fitting. Given the full spectrum of his awe-inspiring gifts, Woods was nothing less than a modern-day Shakespeare. He was someone no one had ever seen or will ever see again.
Woods’s golfing legacy borders on the unimaginable. He was both the first golfer with African American heritage and the youngest golfer in history to win a major championship. He won fourteen majors overall on his way to seventy-nine PGA Tour victories (second all-time behind Sam Snead) and more than one hundred worldwide. He holds the record for most consecutive cuts made (142, covering nearly eight years) and number of weeks ranked no. 1 in the world (683). In addition, he was honored as Player of the Year a record eleven times, captured the annual scoring title a record nine times, and won more than $110 million in official prize money—another record. The tournaments he played in shattered attendance marks throughout the world and consistently set viewership records on television, his charismatic presence and two decades of dominance the driving forces in the stratospheric rise in official PGA Tour purses from $67 million in 1996, his first year as a pro, to a record $363 million in 2017–18, and the rise of the average Tour purse from $1.5 million to $7.4 million during the same period. In the process, he helped make multimillionaires of more than four hundred Tour pros. Pure and simple, Woods changed the face of golf—athletically, socially, culturally, and financially.
At the height of Tiger’s career, golf beat the NFL and the NBA in Nielsen ratings. As a spokesman for Nike, American Express, Disney, Gillette, General Motors, Rolex, Accenture, Gatorade, General Mills, and EA Sports, he appeared in television commercials, on billboards, and in magazines and newspapers. He was mobbed by fans wherever he went—France, Thailand, England, Japan, Germany, South Africa, Australia, even Dubai. Kings and presidents courted him. Corporations wooed him. Rock stars and Hollywood actors wanted to be him. Women wanted to sleep with him. For the better part of two decades, he was simply the most famous athlete on earth.
Tiger wasn’t just alone atop the world of golf. In a very literal sense, he was alone, period. Despite his killer instinct on the course,
he was an
introvert off it, more comfortable playing video games, watching television, or practicing and training in solitude. As far back as childhood, he spent far more time by himself in his bedroom than playing outside with other children. An only child, he learned early on that his parents were the only ones he should truly trust and rely on. They more or less programmed him that way. His father took on the roles of golf mentor, sage, visionary, and best friend. His mother, Kultida, was Tiger’s disciplinarian and fearsome protector. Together, his parents proved an impregnable force that never let anyone trespass on the tightly guarded path to success they had paved for their son. In their Southern California home, where life revolved around Tiger and golf, the mantra was clear: Family is everything.
The Woods family dynamic made Tiger the most mysterious athlete of his time, an enigma obsessed with privacy who mastered the art of being invisible in plain sight, of saying something while revealing virtually nothing. On one hand, he grew up before our eyes, appearing on television shows as early as age two and being photographed and chronicled throughout his childhood. On the other hand, so much of his true family history and personal life remains shrouded in conditional interviews, carefully constructed press releases, mythical tales, half-truths, sophisticated advertising campaigns, and tabloid headlines.
So we were not surprised when Woods, through his chief spokesman, Glenn Greenspan, declined to be interviewed for this book. (Or, to be more precise, we were told that before any interview would be “considered” we needed to disclose whom we spoke to, what they said, and the specific questions we would be asking, conditions that we were not willing to meet.) Woods’s mother, Kultida, in turn, did not respond to our request for an interview. Woods did, however, authorize his longtime chiropractor to provide a comprehensive statement about his treatment of Woods and the issue of performance-enhancing drugs.
In an effort to be comprehensive, we began by reading every book of significance about Woods—more than twenty in all—authored by him, his father, former coaches, a former caddie, Earl’s first wife (Barbara Woods Gary), and more. Included on that list were the often outstanding efforts of journalists such as Tom Callahan, John Feinstein, Steve Helling, Robert Lusetich, Tim Rosaforte, Howard Sounes, and John Strege. We would be remiss if we failed to single out two invaluable sources of information: The 1997 Masters: My Story by Tiger Woods with Lorne Rubenstein, published
in 2017 on the twentieth anniversary of Woods’s historic win at Augusta, and The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods by Hank Haney. We mined virtually every page of both books for insight, facts, and reflections that kept our narrative true and on track. In addition, we read books on Buddhism, Navy SEALs, gifted children, success, the business of golf, sex addiction, compulsive behavior, infidelity, and performance-enhancing drugs. Simultaneously, we spent months constructing a comprehensive 120-page time line of Woods’s life, detailing every significant moment or event dating back to the birth of his parents. We also reviewed the transcripts of more than 320 official press conferences at which Tiger spoke between 1996 and 2017, as well as dozens of transcripts of interviews he granted on a wide range of topics with news organizations and television programs. With the help of a researcher at Sports Illustrated, we compiled and read thousands of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles about Tiger. And with assistance from CBS, NBC, Golf Channel, and the PGA Tour, we looked at more than a hundred hours of footage of Tiger on and off the course.
Over a three-year period, we also conducted more than four hundred interviews with over 250 people from every walk of Woods’s life, from teaching professionals and swing coaches who once occupied a place in his inner circle to close friends on and off the Tour, to his first true love. But some of our greatest insights came from the scores of people in Tiger’s past who have never been interviewed previously—those who helped finance his amateur career, the owner of the Augusta home where Tiger stayed during the Masters year after year, a close female confidant, former employees, business partners, his scuba-diving instructor, his neighbors in Isleworth, and those who worked with him behind the scenes at IMG, Nike, Titleist, EA Sports, NBC Sports, and CBS Sports.
Early on we discovered that two of the qualities Woods values most are privacy and loyalty. As to the former, many of the individuals we approached—from Tiger’s former agent J. Hughes Norton III to past employees of Tiger’s ETW Corp.—had signed nondisclosure agreements that prohibited them from speaking to us. “I was, as most others in his circle were, sworn to contracts and other legal documents,” one former employee told us in an email. It’s not unusual for public figures to require those around them—especially those with access to family members and personal information—to sign confidentiality agreements. But Tiger took
extraordinary steps to protect even the most mundane information about his past. For example, he personally requested that his high school yearbooks not be shared with anyone. Remarkably, the public school district granted his wish, telling us we were
not allowed to look at them. (We ended up viewing his yearbooks at the local library instead.) As for loyalty, individual after individual told us they would “have to check with Tiger” before agreeing to speak. One former high school classmate of his whom we approached in hopes of simply learning about Anaheim’s Western High School said he would first need permission from Tiger. We told him not to bother.
All of this begs the question: Why tackle this project in the first place? Our answer is simple: Very few individuals are known throughout the world by one word. Tiger reached that exclusive club by being the greatest golfer—some would argue the greatest athlete—in modern history. But his story transcends golf, and his influence reached around the globe. Yet there has never been a comprehensive biography that offers a 360-degree look at Tiger’s entire life to date, one that closely examines his roots and the vital role his parents played in his epic rise, fall, and return. After writing The System, a deep dive into the complex world of big-time college football, we were searching for another mountain to climb. We could think of none more imposing or exhilarating than Mount Woods. Our objective from the beginning was to deliver something fresh and revealing, and in the process construct a complete human portrait of a true, albeit reluctant, American idol.
This book is that portrait.