10:44 PM EST, December 6, 2013
In thirty years, when Tiger Woods is no longer able to hit it 320 and no longer has to answer questions about winning or not winning majors, he might have a moment of clarity on what golf has given him.
The money will rate high, of course. The fame — sometimes disintegrating into notoriety — not so high.
But not lost on him will be the doors the game opened. Especially the one that led into Nelson Mandela's home 15 years ago.
Woods has been asked over the years about that meeting, whenever there was a thread of a connection. Mandela's birthday, Mandela's health. And now, Mandela's death at 95.
Mandela was a man of international greatness, whose deeds and leadership turned a racist South Africa into one open to all. It still has its problems. Sadly, all countries do. But South Africa's chances without Mandela, without his martyr-like 27 years in prison, were slim.
Woods is the greatest active golfer in the world and his skin is the same color as Mandela's. He excels in a sport that still doesn't have many that look like him. So questions to Woods about Mandela from mostly white-faced reporters always carried an unspoken message.
Tell us about him. How he made you feel. Help us understand.
Mandela's birthday was July 18, always British Open time. When South African Louis Oosthuizen won at St. Andrews in 2010, he spoke of Mandela. Same thing in 2012, when another South African, Ernie Els, won at Royal Lytham & St Annes. Els made Mandela's inspirational leadership a main part of his trophy-presentation speech on the 18th green.
This year, at Muirfield, on the occasion of an ailing Mandela's 95th birthday, Woods was nudged into the conversation during a news conference.
He spoke with a combination of reverence and awe about the invitation he and his father received in 1998, when he was in Sun City, South Africa, to play in a tournament. Mandela was the country's president, his achievements celebrated worldwide. Woods was 22 and had won just the first of his 14 majors.
World humanitarian met athletic wonder, and Woods talked about the chills he got that day, and still gets, just thinking about it.
He described he and his father, Earl, being ushered into a room in Mandela's home and told that the president would be with them shortly. He said he stood with his father for awhile, felt a presence in the room that he couldn't identify and finally heard the rustling of paper off to the side in the room. It was Mandela, who had been there all along.
Friday it seemed appropriate to ask Woods for more. One of the greatest world leaders had just died, and Woods had met him, actually spent quality time with him.
The setting couldn't have been more comfortable. Woods had just shot 10-under par in his own tournament, the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, an event to benefit his foundation, at the Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. He was 11 under after two rounds and led second-place Zach Johnson by two shots.
He had hit the ball like the once unbeatable Tiger. Irons traveled like lasers toward the pin. Putts rolled true and dropped.
The only negative was his failure to sink an 18-footer on No. 18 that would have broken the course record of 62 he established in the second round of this event in 2007, a year he won by seven shots. In the overall scheme of things, no big deal.
So he was asked again to talk about Mandela, about his visit. Some responses were revisions of past answers:
• "He is such an intelligent man and so well balanced and so articulate that he was a pleasure to be around."
• "I've read a lot of books over the years, and certainly understand what he went through, and what he had to deal with, and to be able to meet a human being as gracious and humble as that, it was quite an honor, especially at his home."
But when pressed, Woods delivered a gem, an insightful and revealing observation about the man about whom so many, in his passing, thirst for every detail.
"Well, I think that probably one of the most interesting things is I asked him — he was over there in the corner and was folding up his newspaper and he was taking so long to fold up his newspaper, and he was meticulous about it. I asked him why did he pay so much detail to folding up a newspaper.
"He said, 'When you are incarcerated for 27 years, you have to slow down time.'"
There it was, a life lesson at a golf tournament, a worldly observation from the heart and soul of an international icon. It was one, perhaps, that the hurry-up world badly needs.
For this, we thank the delivery man, one Tiger Woods, who may or may not totally embrace it himself until he can't hit it 320 anymore and nobody is asking him about winning majors.
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