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Raising Kids of Character: Lessons from Tiger Woods' Dad, Earl

  • Hal Runkel, LMFT ScreamFree Parenting
  • 2008 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
Raising Kids of Character: Lessons from Tiger Woods' Dad, Earl

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted in 2006, after Tiger Woods’ father passed away. Since that time, Tiger has gone on to win 17 more tournaments, including 4 Majors, and enter the realm of fatherhood with the birth of his daughter.

“My dad never pushed me into golf. He never told me to go practice; he never even asked me to play. It was always me wanting to play with him.” -Tiger Woods

"The father of a righteous man has great joy; he who has a wise son delights in him." Pr 23: 24

Earl Woods passed away on May 3, 2006. The ex-Green Beret finally succumbed to his battle with prostate cancer. He was 74.

Many may find this surprising, but I am a huge fan of the elder Woods. Those surprised by this have a difficult time reconciling my strong views about parents who focus their whole lives around their kids and a man who seemed to do just that. These folks may see Earl’s numerous proclamations about his son’s future greatness, or hear about Earl quitting his job in order to help Tiger pursue his junior golf career, and find it easy to lump Mr. Woods into that painful stereotype of the Sports Dad.

You know the type of Sports Dad I’m talking about? The completely fanatic dad who left his own life a long time ago, choosing to completely focus on creating the perfect prodigy. The dad whose entire existence and validation seems tied to whether his son or daughter makes the all-star squad. This is the one who frets about what pro scouts are thinking (even when his kid is only seven). But Earl Woods was no such Sports Dad. He cannot be lumped into the same group with the insufferable (and now estranged) fathers of tennis pros Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati, golfer Sean O’Hair, or gymnast Dominique Moceanu.

Yes, he viewed his son as special, even at a very young age. Yes, he eventually quit his job to help his son’s advancement as an athlete. And yes, he admits that Tiger never once had a babysitter; he and his Thai wife, Kultida, took their son with them everywhere. But in raising a precocious prodigy toward unparalleled success in golf and in life, Earl Woods was decidedly different. And here’s how:

Earl believed in praising a child for effort, not for accomplishment. Likewise, he didn’t believe in or practice criticizing his son for defeats or failures. He reported that he only scolded his son once on the golf course—for basically giving up down the stretch of a junior tournament. “Don’t ever quit. Ever. If you don’t want to finish, then don’t sign up to play.” For all the championships and victories, the most amazing Tiger accomplishment is his all-time record of making 146 consecutive cuts. That means he stayed so focused and gave so much effort in every tournament that even when he didn’t have his best stuff, he still played well enough to make the cut into the weekend. For 146 tournaments. No one in the history of golf has even come close.

For a dad so involved in his son’s sports life, Earl saw golf as merely a vehicle to teach life lessons. “My purpose in raising Tiger was not to raise a golfer. I wanted to raise a good person.” Golf was a way to learn about personal integrity, focus, commitment (it’s the only sport where you have to call penalties on yourself). His greatest thrill was not seeing Tiger win the Masters; it was seeing the Tiger Woods Foundation open the $25M Tiger Woods Learning Center, an institute for inner-city kids. Unlike so many parents, Earl didn’t see sport as a way to earn a good life; he saw it as a way to learn one.

Earl believed that parenting meant creating a relationship involving both trust and respect. He said that trust was something granted, while respect was something earned. And just when you thought you might anticipate his explanation of that philosophy, Earl the former baseball player threw a curve at you. Children don’t need to earn parents’ respect—it’s the other way around, Earl explained. With an impassioned plea, Earl believed that it is we parents who have to earn each of our child’s respect, by listening, sharing, and caring.

In a remarkable example of giving his child the space to make his own decisions (and then learn from the consequences), Earl began to tell Tiger that if he wanted to play in a golf tournament he would have to load all of his clubs and equipment into the car. At this point Tiger was eight years old. Earl recounts that there were a few times when he was backing out of the driveway, headed to a tournament an hour away, knowing for certain that young Tiger had forgotten his clubs. He had to work extremely hard to hold his tongue during the entire drive, but he wouldn’t say a word about it. And when they would finally arrive at the tournament only to discover the empty trunk, Earl wouldn’t have to point out Tiger’s mistake. And all the way home, he’d work hard to resist the urge so many of us give into: the urge of “I told you…”

With his family by his side, Earl Woods passed away in his home in Cypress, California, the same modest house where he and Kultida raised Tiger. It still has the net in the garage where 10-month-old Tiger first watched his dad hit golf balls some 30 years ago.

Due to his father’s illness and death, Tiger will be playing competitive golf this weekend for the first time in nine weeks. It will be the longest layoff of his professional career. Perhaps it’s in the Hollywood-type script for Tiger’s return to professional golf, the literal playing field of a boy and his father, to result in a timely championship --- on Father’s Day.

Tiger commented on his difficult return to that playing field earlier this week and said, “We're going through a difficult time with Mom and I and our friends and family, but I'd always smile back when I think back to my childhood. It's one of those things—I’m very lucky to have that. And I can say that with truth and honesty that I have a smile on my face every time I think back to my childhood…not everyone has that. I was very lucky.”

May all of our children be so lucky.


Hal E. Runkel, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the National Bestseller ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool, from Waterbrook Press. Visit http://www.screamfree.com/ for more information.