The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

January/February 2003
 
   
 

Earl Woods: In Search of the Original Tiger

BY MICHAEL ARKUSH


From prodigy to powerhouse, the story of Tiger Woods has been well-chronicled. But one piece of the puzzle warrants another look: Woods' father, Earl. Specifically, his experiences in the Vietnam War.

Here is what we do know. Earl Woods served two tours in Southeast Asia. He became great friends with Lieut. Col. Vuong "Tiger" Phong, the ARVN province chief in Lam Dong. Years later, when his second wife, Kultida, gave birth, they named their son Eldrick "Tiger" Woods. This way, the elder Woods figured, if his son ever became famous, his friend would be able to find him.

But who exactly was Tiger Phong, and what was the nature of their relationship? Finally, what did Earl Woods do in Vietnam?

Earl Woods joined the Army in the early 1950s after two years at Kansas State University, where he was the only African-American baseball player in the Big Eight Conference. After two years in ROTC, Woods hadn't been contemplating a greater involvement in the military until he experienced a sudden change of heart which, nearly a half-century later, he can't fully explain. "If I hadn't made that decision," he said in an interview, "there would be no Tiger Woods."

Nonetheless, his goal from the beginning was to go 20 and out. As it turned out, part of the 20 would be overseas. "We were one of the first classes diverted from Korea to Vietnam," Woods said. "That's how I got over there."

His first tour began in February 1962, long before Vietnam entered the American consciousness. Marilyn Monroe was still a star. John Kennedy was still president. Like many other soldiers, Woods didn't know much about Vietnam in those early days. "You go where you were assigned," he said, "and then you come back. I was a professional soldier."

Strangely enough, he felt more secure in Vietnam.

"The best thing I had going for me," he said, "was the Cuban Missile Crisis. I laughed and told one of the guys, 'You know what? I feel safer here than I would if I were in the United States.' "  His job the first time around was at a desk in Saigon. He bought and sold things. He did not see combat.

"All the interpreters and translators who worked for the U.S. government would go on operations," Woods explained. "They would put requests in for overtime. I had to approve all these things. Many times, the interpreter was lost in combat. It wasn't an easy task."

After the tour ended in February 1963, Woods went to military school at Ft. Bragg. He later moved to New York City, where he became executive officer for the ROTC department at City College of New York. He kept in touch with the latest developments.

Not surprisingly, he started dealing with members of Students for a Democratic Society, who encouraged students not to sign up with ROTC. "It made it very difficult for us to do our job," Woods recalled. "It was near impossible to discuss anything with them. I tried on several occasions to get into a dialogue with them, and it was like talking to someone who was wired. They wouldn't listen to reason. They wouldn't listen to facts. I tried to tell them, 'Hey, look, I've been there, and it's not like you say.' "

Soon, Woods would be there again. After three and a half years in New York, he completed Airborne school and was stationed at Ft. Bragg. One day, while serving in the Sixth Special Forces Group of the Green Berets, he was called in by the commanding general.

"Earl," the general told him, "I've got an emergency requisition here, and your name has come up for assignment to Vietnam." Woods wasn't exactly thrilled.

"I had recently been married," he explained, "and we were living in Brooklyn. I honestly didn't want to go and leave her behind." But, as usual, he did his duty, starting his second tour in August 1970. He went over as an adviser, assigned in the Binh Thuan Province. That  is when he met the first Tiger.

"I went with him on operations all the time," Earl Woods said. "He was in charge of all the military forces in the province. Whenever contact was established, we would chopper in and fight all day and then come back."

It soon becomes clear that Woods has no problem reliving the war. "Yes, I've seen combat," he said. "Yes, I've heard bullets go by my head. Yes, I've been out there in the swamp and in the dirt. But that's war."

What kind of man was Lieut. Col. Tiger Phong?

"He was a courageous fighter and leader who was really nondescript," Woods said. "All he wanted to be was a schoolteacher. Neither one of us were these robotic, rigid professional soldiers. We had a job to do and we were doing it. He was damn good in the field. That's why I nicknamed him Tiger."

One particular example of courage stands out. Tiger received a call from the tactical operations center that the Viet Cong had taken over a nearby village. He didn't bother to wake up Woods. Instead, calling in the artillery, he withdrew to a safe house at the edge of the village. Unfortunately, it wasn't safe for long. It was hit with artillery. The next morning, Woods heard the whole story.

"We're going to get those guys today," Tiger told his friend.

"Tiger, you're crazy," Woods responded. "There are only six of us."

"That's okay. We got the blocking forces."They went into the jungle and fought all day long. "We flushed them into the blocking forces," Woods recalled, "and destroyed the whole company. He wrote me up, and I got the Vietnamese Civil Star."

After the war, Woods eventually settled in California. He lost contact with his old friend. He went to one of those agencies that try to locate people. Trouble is he had misspelled his friend's last name. It was Vuong, not Nguyen, as Woods had thought. He had always called him Tiger.

And Phong never wrote. "He didn't write very good English," Woods said.

When Saigon fell in 1975, Woods was watching on television. All he could do was wonder."I saw the desperation and wondered if Tiger had gotten out,"he said. "At that point, I vowed that if I had a child, I was going to nickname him Tiger in the hope that he would be on television and [the other Tiger] would make the connection that he was my kid and would get in touch with me. I don't know how I knew but I just knew that my kid would be somebody great. I just knew that all the time."

The plan did not work. Woods never heard from his old friend. He then got busy with the new Tiger.

"I taught him all the things that I had learned in Vietnam," Earl Woods said. "The value of human life, of integrity, the commitment that was necessary in order to do a good job. I feel a higher power was preparing me to raise Tiger. I knew that Tiger would need a person who was experienced in public relations and news management. I gave him that experience. When he plays, I see this tenacity, this will to win. Nothing disturbs him. The concentration and the focus are the same qualities required by someone in military service."

Then in 1997, Golf Digest's Tom Callahan decided it was time to find out what happened to the first Tiger. After meeting Earl Woods in Milwaukee, Callahan had some serious doubts. "I didn't even believe that he was in the service," said Callahan, who made a Freedom of Information request for Woods' military records. "He couldn't tell the years that he served."

Woods understood what was happening. "They [Golf Digest] did a story because Tiger was famous, and it looked too much like a public relations Hollywood-type thing," Woods said. "They didn't believe me. Before he [Callahan] went over, he checked with other people. Sure enough, they found out that all the dates worked with my story."

Callahan reported that after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Col. Phong had been put in a re-education camp in Lang Son and Hoang Lien Son Province. Afraid that he would be shot on sight, he had turned himself in. He died in September 1976 of starvation. It wasn't until ten years later, however, that the government told his family. He was buried in the jungle near the Chinese border. The family brought the bones back to Ho Chi Minh City. The children washed his bones while Phong's widow prepared his favorite foods. He was buried in his home province, Tay Ninh.

"What a waste," Woods said. "The guy would have been a great teacher. He cared so much for people. He could have made a contribution to the world, just like I have."

Phong's wife and two of his children relocated to Tacoma, Washington. Thanks to Golf Digest, in 1997 both Woods and his famous son had an emotional reunion in Cypress, California, with the family. "He was on the front stoop," recalled Callahan, "when [Phong's widow and children] pulled up. Earl went out on the yard and embraced her on the grass, and they came inside, and sat on the couch, and started talking. They had pictures, and he couldn't get enough of them. Can I buy you a car?' he asked."

Woods told war stories. It went on for hours. "It's hard to keep from crying, hearing how much he loved our dad," Vuong Dang Phuoc, the original Tiger's youngest son, said to Callahan.

"I wanted Tiger to experience it," Woods recalled. "Before, this was just a story to him, until all those people came. Then, it became a reality, as he saw it first-hand."

Tiger, according to Callahan, took Phong's widow and children to his room in Cypress. "I don't think it mattered that much to him," Callahan said. "He was not sentimentally involved. But he loves his dad. Tiger was very sweet to them."

Looking back, the elder Woods has no regrets about his experiences in Vietnam. He even went to visit The Wall in Washington, though, typically, he has a strong opinion about the experience. "I couldn't get over the commercialism and phony nationalism," Woods said.

He didn't check for the names of his friends. "I didn't want to know," he said. But he is proud of his contribution.

"I answered the call when the nation called," said Woods, who has talked about Vietnam with his son. "I went without a protest, served, and returned. Tiger and I have a civilian version of that. When we go to a tournament, and he wins, on the way to the airport or victory party, we look at each other and say, We came, we saw, we conquered, and we left.' "

   

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