Masters 2022 — Tiger Woods has spent a lifetime preparing for this kind of pain

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods and his rebuilt leg weathered another day at the Masters, overcoming a disastrous front nine to make the cut and enter the weekend nine shots off the lead. To watch him on Friday, in pain but still stoic, was to watch someone fight…the course, the wind, itself. Across the country, in California, a retired golf pro recognized that display of courage and thought of his old friend Earl Woods.

“He would be so proud,” Joe Grohman said Friday. “For the physical ailments Tiger has been through, and all the other nonsense, Earl would be crazy right now.”

Almost everyone who follows golf knows the story of Earl Woods, the green beret and combat veteran who raised the best golfer in the world. Even though Earl has been dead for nearly 16 years, people who knew him couldn’t help but think of him as they watched Tiger play at Augusta National this week. Earl would have loved the struggle, knowing in his bones that an injured middle-aged man playing two rounds of golf shows more greatness than running away from a field in those vanished days of youth and wonder.

Long ago, Earl and Grohman bonded over brutal days on the shooting range, meeting at the Seal Beach Navy Golf Course near the Woods’ home in Cypress. One day, while hitting balls, Earl turned to the head pro.

“Joe, have you ever met my son?” ” He asked.

Tiger stood far away in the firing range, all alone and refusing to look up, as Earl explained to his friend, “When he’s on tour, he’s going to have to play with distractions.”

Earl liked to make noise to try and shake Tiger, to get inside his head, and shortly after meeting Tiger, Joe asked him, “Does he really do that every time?”

“I don’t know,” Tiger replied. “I haven’t heard anything for two years.”

That’s when Joe knew. They were dealing with once in a generation.

Earl and Tiger spent every day together in Navy class, playing tricks, hitting balls, and Grohman was their almost constant companion during those years, starting around age 13 and going until he become professional.

They would often add one of Earl’s old military buddies as a fourth and burn the light of day. The group gathered at the bar to go around, the men ordering drinks and Tiger sitting there with his coke. Sometimes Joe and Tiger were the only two people at the club, which didn’t have much traffic due to the closing of military bases in the area. They were playing cross-country from one corner of the property to the other, or maybe they were just camping out on #8 for hours and hitting corners. He remembers Tiger, around the age of 15 or 16, going from landing his practice 20 yards behind Grohman to two weeks later 20 yards ahead.

“It pissed me off,” Grohman said with a laugh.

He felt close to something powerful, the future of golf by his side, and then one day it was gone. During Tiger’s rise, he left a lot of people behind.

“He didn’t tell me he was moving to Florida and that broke my heart,” Grohman said. “I thought I was very close to the family. I couldn’t say goodbye to him. It was just over. I miss that kid. Those were the fun days.”

Grohman often had a mourning companion. His friend, Earl, struggled a lot when his son also left home, going out into the world to become Tiger Woods. “I would drop by to see them,” Grohman said. “You could feel it. There was a sense of loss. It was a bereavement. It was bittersweet: ‘God, we miss the kid.’ We fed on his energy.”

He stopped and thought about Earl.

“I wish he had lived longer,” he said.

Earlier this week, Grohman came to Augusta to do his annual veterans golf event. On Monday, he toured the course and followed Tiger on his practice round. Grohman saw a short game that looked like the good old days and he worried when Tiger couldn’t quite move on his driver, causing him to spray the ball. He liked to see the outpouring of support from the galleries.

“I think the level of excitement is back to where it was back in the day,” he said.

On Tuesday, he found Tiger on the practice court, working on his short game and hitting putts. Woods didn’t know Joe was there, only ten yards away. They haven’t spoken in years. The last time was at Earl’s wake. I asked Joe if he was trying to get Tiger’s attention.

“I’m not ready yet,” he said.

He was laughing at himself. For the many people who have helped Tiger a bit along the way, their interaction with him remains the most important part of their lives. Tiger’s resurrection, overcoming scandal and back injuries and a life-threatening car accident called them all back.

On Friday, I spoke on the phone to a Vietnamese immigrant in Tacoma, Washington, named Phuoc Vuong. His father was a decorated soldier who saved Earl Woods’ life in Vietnam. Everyone knew Vuong’s father as “Tiger”. He is the namesake of Tiger Woods. A long time ago, Vuong said, he got media accreditation for a golf tournament in the Pacific Northwest and went to see a Tiger press conference. Vuong sat in the second row and never raised his hand or introduced himself. He just wanted to be close at least once to the man who now bore his father’s name in the world.

Tiger never knew he was there, just as he never knew that one of the many faces in the Augusta Gallery on Monday and Tuesday belonged to his former teacher and friend.

Grohman is now retired and moving to Florida, haphazardly about a mile from the Medalist Club, which is Tiger’s home course. Right now, he’s watching the Masters and packing his boxes. He thinks enough time has passed and he should find a way to reach out, just sit back and laugh at the good old days, raise a glass to Earl and let all the old hurts fade away. They are all different people from what they were in the Cours de la Marine.

Over the past two days, Grohman has watched the broken and rebuilt 46-year-old he first met as a 13-year-old prodigy. He saw Tiger bogey four of the first five holes. He shot 39 from the front nine today, looking to have no chance of playing on the weekend, only to slowly recover those shots. After a long day, he finished two over for the round and one for the tournament. He left the class and went inside. Someone asked him how he felt.

“Well,” he said, stretching the word.

He laughed and kind of fumbled for a minute.

“I don’t feel as good as I would like,” he said.

Tiger said he needed a lightbulb moment, which he was able to find since he was ahead of Grohman at Cypress. Grohman understands as well as anyone where Tiger’s strange odyssey began, because he saw her in the beginning. So seeing him continue, a damaged but determined ship, fills him with joy. Two more brutal and painful days await Woods and everyone who ever cared about him. It’s not even sure that Tiger can finish this tournament, even if he thinks he can win it for the sixth time.

Grohman’s voice rose Friday as he contemplated the weekend.

“We didn’t even know if he was going to be able to keep his footing and here he is,” he said. “It’s bigger than Bobby Jones. If he wins this thing, it’s going to be the greatest golf story of all time.”