THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Tiger Woods missed what he described as kick-in putts on his first and last holes in the opening round of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge on Thursday, leaving him four shots off the lead with a 1-under 71. He was maybe not quite incensed, but certainly walked off the final green at Sherwood Country Club feeling a measure of frustration.
That feeling quickly dissipated, though, those trivialities overcome by a healthy dose of perspective.
That’s because upon finishing his round, Woods learned of the death of Nelson Mandela, whose impact on his life cannot be overstated.
“I've been influenced by him,” he said. “I got a chance to meet him with my father back in '98. He invited us to his home, and it was one of the inspiring times I've ever had in my life.”
One year after winning his first Masters title at the age of 21, a man of mixed cultural heritage triumphing on grounds that not long before would have prohibited him from competing, Woods was in South Africa to play in the Million Dollar Golf Challenge at Sun City. Mandela invited him and his father, Earl, to his home, resulting in a story Tiger has recounted publicly dozens of times since.
“My father and I went to have lunch with him,” he recalled earlier this year. “It still gives me chills to this day, thinking about it. A gentleman asked us to go into this side room over here and [said], ‘President Mandela will join you in a little bit.’ And we walked in the room and my dad and I were just kind of looking around.
“I said, ‘Dad, do you feel that?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, it feels different in this room.’
“It was just like a different energy in the room. We just looked at each other and just shrugged our shoulders and whatever. 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.
“It was an honor to meet him at his home. And that's an experience that I will never, ever forget.”
When asked about Mandela on Thursday, Woods declined to recount this story one more time. “I'm not going to bore you with it again,” he said. But the truth is, even 15 years later, the story has never gotten boring.
For a man who so often appears robotic when answering questions, this story always gave him an opportunity to display some emotion. For one who frequently straddles the fence when addressing any political issue, it allowed a rare glimpse of passion that had always endured.
Tiger didn’t just meet Mandela. He didn’t just have lunch in his home and feel his presence in the room. No, he studied him. He understood – like so many other people – what this man meant to the world. He knew of the 27 years of imprisonment, the nonexistence of hatred, the refusal to inflict revenge upon those who had wronged him.
“I don't think any of us probably here could have survived that and come out as humble and as dignified as he did,” Woods said, echoing so many others’ sentiments. “To lead an entire nation and to basically love the world when he came out, I think that's a testament to his will and his spirit and who he was.”
Let’s not limit this story to the impact it had on the golf world solely to Woods, though.
Gary Player wore black and white pants during the 1960 Open Championship to raise awareness for his native South Africa’s struggles with apartheid. Forty years later, he wore the same pants to help celebrate its demise. After learning of Mandela’s death, he tweeted, “Nelson Mandela’s courage, forgiveness, love & hope inspired people around the world. He made me want to be a better man.”
When Louis Oosthuizen won the Open Championship in 2010 with Zack Rasego, a black man from South Africa, as his caddie, he thanked Mandela in the victory speech, ironically on his birthday. When countryman Ernie Els won the same tournament two years later, he likewise credited Mandela.
Each of these men, like Woods, has endured missteps within the game of golf. A few wayward drives, or some squirrely iron shots, or, yes, even a couple of missed putts from kick-in range. They are enough to leave any professional golfer walking off the final green with a measure of frustration.
On Thursday, those frustrations were displaced by perspective after the day’s biggest news. Suddenly none of it felt very substantial, being four shots off the lead instead of two didn’t seem too important.
Woods thought back to that day 15 years ago, when he felt Nelson Mandela’s presence in his home before meeting him, and spoke from the heart.
“It's a sad day for many people around the world,” he said. “The world is going to miss him.”