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Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Do you know who my uncle is?

By Tom Friend
ESPN The Magazine

When the phone call came, when they heard Grandpa Earl had only weeks to live, she and her mom drove the six hours to say good-bye. Uncle Tiger was already there, along with her own dad, Earl Jr., and there was little to do except smile at Grandpa, admire Tiger's Masters trophies and peek out into the dusty garage. And that garage was magic to her. She used to watch Tiger putt on the green rug over here or blast his driver into the frayed net over there, and one day she even snatched one of his 5-irons. She was about 3 at the time, and she dragged that club over to the net and swung for the moon, leaving 16-year-old Tiger in stitches. And oh, how Grandpa Earl's mind started racing that day: Maybe this was the female Tiger. Maybe this was the sequel.

He found Tiger's old clubs, pulled out a cut-down iron, showed her a grip and let her hack away. And from that moment on, that's how the girl and her grandfather spent their time together: re-creating Tiger Woods.

But now she was 15, and Grandpa had prostate cancer, on top of his heart troubles, and he was starting to deteriorate. She cried at first, at the enormity of it all, but that day, in Earl Sr.'s home, Cheyenne Woods stayed composed. And Grandpa Earl marveled at her -- at her wherewithal and how much she looked like a young Tiger, how she had Tiger's eyes. He pulled Earl Jr. aside and told his son, "She is going to do great things, the little punk. Mmm-mmm-mmm. She is going to be something else."

And then, 10 weeks later, Earl Woods died, never finishing what he started.

Two months after the funeral, Cheyenne was playing on her uncle's Friendship Cup team against Ernie Els' South African squad when a small gallery began to watch her every divot. She tuned the spectators out, which is a gift she has, and as she approached the next tee box, she didn't notice a man who had walked up close behind her. She teed off, and for the first time all day she yanked the ball straight into a lake. The man had one thing to say: "Runs in the family," Tiger Woods remarked with a grin.

Cheyenne Woods
You can't tell that Cheyenne Woods is intimidated by her famous uncle just by watching her behavior on the course.

So, on a day when she was literally in Tiger's shadow, Cheyenne laughed at her gaffe, buckled down and made par. It was so Woods of her. Whether she'll end up on LPGA Tour leader boards or flicker out in college is impossible to say. But either way, shes doing it by the book. Earl's book.

Earl Woods' contribution to the golf world is well-known, but what is less recognized is how he nurtured the game of his eldest granddaughter. He thought perhaps she could be another Tiger, but he made certain that the sport wasn't rammed down her throat. Earl lived in Cypress, Calif., and Cheyenne lived in Phoenix, so he delicately managed her game over the telephone and by having videos of her swing sent Express Mail to his house. And he used a go-between: Cheyenne's quiet and unassuming mother, Susan.

Susan Woods knew little about golf. But after watching her daughter's first swings in Grandpa's garage, she understood that her world would soon change. A year or so later, Earl gave Cheyenne her first set of clubs, although Susan -- who'd just been divorced from Earl Jr.-- didn't even know where to take her 5-year-old daughter to play. So they went to a park, and Susan counted how many times it took Cheyenne to hit the ball from one end to the other. Eventually, Cheyenne started group lessons, wearing boys golf clothes, and at 7 she joined an LPGA youth club. She practiced on modified 100-yard holes, where players could tee up every shot, and in her first nine-hole tournament, Cheyenne shot a 96. Thrilled, she shouted, "Look, Mom, I won! I have the most points!"

"Shhh," Susan answered. "This isn't basketball."

Still, Cheyenne was smitten with the game. In first grade, she asked her teacher, "Do you know who my uncle is?"

"No," the teacher replied. "Should I?"

By third grade, Cheyenne's teacher was asking for her uncle's autograph. Tiger was always on TV by then, and Cheyenne liked to finger-voodoo his opponents. She hung up his poster. She wore red on the final day of her tournaments. "But every other kid started wearing red too," she says.

And Earl was always in the background, keeping tabs on her game. He liked that she played hoops and volleyball, but he financed her golf lessons and travel. He flew her out, when she was 8, to play in the Junior World Championships in San Diego, and when she struggled with her mechanics, he gave her a chipping lesson in her hotel room. "He did everything," Tiger says. "He tried to provide her with the same opportunities I had. He made sure she had the chance to play all over the country."

When the Junior Worlds were over, Earl sat Cheyenne down and talked to her about staying focused. That had been his mission with Tiger, too. He rolled balls at the boy as he was putting, jingled change in his pocket during his backswing and stood so that his shadow was over Tiger's ball while he was hitting. And whenever he saw Cheyenne, maybe three or four times a year, he did the same.

By age 10, she'd broken through. Relying on strong mechanics and eerie calm, she won her first national tournament -- the 2000 U.S. Kids in Jekyll Island, Ga. -- and entered the mad, mad world of mass media. Susan was contacted by writers and TV producers, and at the following year's tourney, eight camera crews showed up to do stories. But Earl advised against it, and requests were politely denied. "She was so young," Susan says. "There was no need to splash everything. Let her grow up a little."

Problem was, she was even better the next year, pulling a Tiger by coming from two shots back on the final two holes, wearing red, to win. Now they wanted a piece of her again. And now another Earl -- Earl Jr.-- started to worry.

Grandpa Earl had another life pre-Tiger. He had three kids from his first marriage, the eldest being Earl Jr., and he was by his own admission an absentee dad, even before his subsequent marriage to Tiger's mom. His time in the military had partially kept him away, but when Earl Jr. graduated from high school, Earl Sr. invited him to live in Cypress. "He wanted to get in my head, get in my behind and make an imprint on me," Earl Jr. says. "He called it finishing school."

They'd go together to the local junior high, where Earl Jr. shot hoops and Earl Sr. practiced the new sport hed taken up: golf. He'd chip all day onto the baseball field, and although he could've used a partner, Earl Jr. had zero interest. Which is where Tiger came in. Eldrick was born while Earl Jr. was living at the house, and not only did the toddler adore golf, he became a 2-year-old prodigy.

"What happened was, Tiger hung out with my old man," Earl Jr. says. "And my old man just happened to be playing golf. My dad was a natural teacher. So, booyah, there you go. Like a snowball rolling downhill. The local papers got ahold of him, and he was cute as a bug's ear. And my dad was Mr. PR himself. It was not a circus as much as a whirlwind. A controlled whirlwind."

Soon the traveling began, Earl Sr. and Tiger together, and they'd be gone Thursday through Sunday. Earl Jr. thought to himself, You're lucky, Tiger, you're so lucky, because now it was his little brother who was attending finishing school and Earl Jr. who was left behind.

Years later, as his only daughter began climbing the ranks of junior golf and reprising Tiger, all those feelings came flooding back. "I've never made this statement before," Earl Jr. says, "but what she's doing in golf is good and it's not good. It's good because of the opportunities, and she's earned that. I guess it's any father's fear of losing his child, but I've had firsthand experience of how golf takes a person away from the family. Not just for short periods, but indefinitely. Indefinitely."

After his divorce, in 1993, Earl Jr. got used to seeing Cheyenne once a month or so, and he was grateful that he and Susan remained confidants, particularly regarding Cheyenne's golf. He left the travel to his ex-wife, feeling guilty that he couldn't drop everything and go. But he had a job as a machinist, and a bad back, too, so he monitored tourneys via the Internet and waited for Cheyenne to call with updates.

Still, Earl Jr. wondered how intense Cheyenne's golf would get. She could hit it 250 yards off the tee and straight, and by the time she was 12 Earl Sr. felt she was ready for the next level. He phoned one of Phoenix's top instructors, Mike LaBauve.

"He said, 'I'm Earl Woods,'" LaBauve remembers. "And I'm thinking it's a prank."

Earl told LaBauve about Cheyenne and asked if he'd coach her. When LaBauve agreed, Earl asked him to make a before-and-after tape and said that he'd send a copy to Tiger for approval. "Now I'm thinking, Okay, the pressure's on," LaBauve says. "But I worked with her for a couple sessions and sent the new-and-improved version to Earl. He called a few days later and said, 'Tiger liked it'."

Tiger also tutored his niece. When Cheyenne was 14, he brought her to Florida for a skull session with him and swing coach Hank Haney. They were on the range one morning when torrential rains swept in. Cheyenne returned to Tiger's house, thinking they'd call it a day, but when the rain slowed, Tiger asked, "You ready to go back out?" They played a round, then returned to the driving range five hours later where an exhausted Cheyenne said, "I'm not used to practicing this much. And I don't want to. Maybe when it's my career, but not now."

Earl Jr. breathed a sigh of relief.

When Earl Sr. died last May a month after a somber Tiger finished third at the Masters, a mother and child wept in Arizona. The funeral was in California, and Earl Jr. remembers everybody walking around as if it weren't real. He was just glad he'd taken the plants.

Earl Sr. loved gardening, and every time Earl Jr. visited Pop in the final weeks, he'd ask to take a plant home to Phoenix. By the end, he'd taken about eight, and after the funeral he and Cheyenne replanted them together.

She was about to turn 16, and it was clear that golf did not consume her. Earl Sr. was accused of pushing Tiger, but that had never been the case with Cheyenne. He'd worried about burnout with her and urged Susan to let her play only if golf was fun. "Her grandfather, thats who I'd always turn to," Susan says. "He always reminded me, There's no rush, no rush. Look at the big picture."

Of course, Grandpa Earl died before he could take Cheyenne to finishing school, but in many ways she was already polished. She never threw her clubs. She forgot bogeys instantly. In one tournament, she hit a shot from one bunker into another and giggled. "Is she Tiger Woods? I don't know," LaBauve says. "But she has some of the mental qualities Tiger seems to have. She doesn't look like anything rattles her."

But what LaBauve doesnt know, and what Earl will never get to see, is whether she is hungry like Tiger, hungry enough to lop off an opponents head. Last summer, at the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship, she provided a clue. Cheyenne was three down to Florida's Lindy Duncan with four holes to play, and she seemed to flip a switch. She won 15 and 16 and would've pulled even on 17 if Duncan missed a short putt to half. But Duncan never putted because Cheyenne said it was good.

"Sometimes they take it as rude if you make them putt out," Cheyenne said later, after losing.

Says Tiger today: "Well, that's the difference between her and myself."

Cheyenne Woods
Coming from an elite pedigree of golfers, Cheyenne Woods has a chance to be a big name in golf.

So maybe she is too reserved, too polite, and maybe that's why she's fallen to 91st in the national junior rankings. Even LaBauve, who typically sees her every two weeks, wonders if she's too laid-back. "I've known her for years, and she still seems really shy," he says. "I'll tease her sometimes: 'When are you gonna open up?'"

He uses some of Earl Sr.'s methods to try to unnerve her. He'll take her to a long par 5 and tell her, "Your par is 4." The idea is to get her making birdies, to get her comfortable playing entire tournaments under par. Earl Sr. was always thinking ahead like that, because it was clear she was a natural. Cheyenne could take two weeks off, then come back and consistently hit greens and drain putts. She could do the same trick shot Tiger did in that Nike commercial, dribbling the ball on the face of her club before batting it down the fairway. Onlookers salivated, imagining a Woods on the LPGA Tour, overshadowing Sorenstam and Wie. But there's a hitch: Earl Sr. is gone now. And Cheyenne doesnt seem to dream that big.

"I guess it would be nice to be No.1," she says, "but I don't know if I would want that much of my life to be about golf. My goal is to at least stay in the top five, and always be in contention to win."

"She's a lot more mellow than I am," Tiger says, which is also what makes her so endearing. A random family showed up at one of her high school matches this fall with a video camera, walked all 18 holes and pestered her for autographs afterward. Didn't faze her a bit. At her high school, Xavier Prep, she hears questions like "Did Tiger invite you to his wedding?" "Does he buy you birthday presents?" "Do you see him a lot?" And she answers them all without bother. (Yes, no and no.)

She just wants to be one of the gang, which is why, as a high school junior, she's joined the track team, competing in sprints and long jump. It's what Earl Sr. would have wanted. But -- and make no mistake here -- Earl also wanted her on the golf team. So she's thought of him a lot this school year. She thought of him when she shot a record 30 in a nine-hole match at Phoenix Country Club. And she thought of him again during the state championship, when she shot 68 the first day and needed one last putt on the second day to win.

Hundreds of people sat nearby awaiting her final shot, watching, whispering, jingling change in their pockets. And she just tuned them out. She kneeled to line up the putt -- same way she always did in that dusty garage -- and drained it. The gallery erupted, and all Cheyenne could do was smile.

You know the smile. You've seen it on TV.

Runs in the family.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.