Commentary

Tiger felt impact of Mandela's aura

Updated: December 6, 2013, 10:34 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- He long ago erected a wall to keep at a distance the inquisitive outsiders, the prying eyes. Tiger Woods, one of the world's most famous athletes, is also among the most private.

Few subjects elicit much in the way of substance, but when it comes to his late father, Earl, it has always been difficult for Woods to keep from letting in a little daylight.

Anyone who is even remotely aware of Woods' story knows the influence Earl played in his life, from putting a golf club in his hand as a toddler to nurturing a prodigy into a major champion.

Woods, never one to show much emotion, couldn't hold back when he captured his first major title following Earl's death, at the 2006 Open Championship, and typically speaks with reverence about his dad, who died in May of that year.

The annual golf tournament he is playing this week at Sherwood Country Club is, among other things, a tribute to his dad. Soon after Woods turned pro in 1996, it was Earl who prodded his son into starting a foundation in order to give back to youth who needed help. The Tiger Woods Foundation was born, and the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, now in its 15th year, is an important part of its funding.

With that in mind, Woods put up $4 million of his own money a year ago for the event's purse when the tournament was void of a sponsor. It is why he is moving the tournament to Florida next year, to help give it a financial boost.

And it is why, when learning of the death Thursday of Nelson Mandela, Woods could not help but think back to a long-ago visit with the former South African president.

"You've heard me tell the story many times," Woods said. "I'm not going to bore you with it again. But he certainly had an impact on my life and certainly my father, and I think that time frame in which he came out [of prison] -- the country could have fallen apart. It could have gone a lot of different ways and he led it to where it's at now, and the world is going to miss him."

The photo from 15 years ago shows a young Woods, just 22 at the time, wearing a jacket and tie and shaking the hand of Mandela at his home in 1998.

Woods had traveled to South Africa to take part in what was then called the Sun City Classic (now the Nedbank Challenge and being played this week).

[+] EnlargeNelson Mandela, Tiger Woods, Earl Woods
Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty ImagesIn November 1998, Tiger Woods met Nelson Mandela for the first time along with the golfer's father, Earl, in South Africa.

Although Woods didn't provide the details on Thursday, he did earlier this year in Scotland prior to the Open Championship. Mandela was about to celebrate his 95th birthday and Woods was asked about their first meeting.

"He invited us to his home," Woods recalled. "And my father and I went to have lunch with him. It still gives me chills to this day thinking about it."

Mandela was the first black South African to hold the presidency and was in the fourth of his five years as the country's leader after having been imprisoned for 27 years due to his opposition to apartheid. A year earlier, at age 21, Woods had become the first black golfer to win a major championship.

Woods had declined an invitation to meet with President Bill Clinton soon after his Masters victory to celebrate Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball. But Woods relished this opportunity.

"A gentleman asked us to go into this side room over here and said, 'President Mandela will join you in a little bit,'" Woods said. "And we walked in the room and my dad and I were just kind of looking around. And I said, 'Dad, do you feel that?' And he says, 'Yeah, it feels different in this room.'

"And it was just like a different energy in the room. We just looked at each other and just shrugged our shoulders. And maybe, I'm guessing probably 30 seconds later, I heard some movement behind me and it was President Mandela folding up the paper. And it was pretty amazing. The energy that he has, that he exudes, is unlike any person I've ever met. And it was an honor to meet him at his home. And that's an experience that I will never, ever forget."

Five years later, the Presidents Cup team competition was scheduled for South Africa. The event was being played for the first time since 2000 and there was some concern that a few top American players might decline due to the increasing demands on their time, especially with a Ryder Cup every other year.

The International captain was Gary Player, who for years played golf around the world and was the sporting face of a country known for apartheid. Jack Nicklaus captained the American side, but back then, there was concern that Woods would not show, the great line being that the Golden Bear might not be able to lure him, but Mandela could.

Woods has met all manner of sports stars, titans of industry, musicians. But few, if any, have moved him like Mandela.

On Thursday, after shooting 71 at the tournament he hosts and which he still uses to honor his father, Woods took to Twitter for one of the rare times.

"Pop & I felt your aura when we met," he tweeted. "I feel it today and I will feel it forever. You have done so much for humanity ... You will always be in my heart Mr. Mandela."

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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