Earl Woods

Earl Dennison Woods (1932 –2006) was the father of Tiger Woods. Woods started his son in golf at a very early age and coached him during his first years in the sport. He later published two books about the process. Woods served two tours of duty in South Vietnam and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The National Archive provided Medic with a brief and faulty summary of Earl Wood’s military service. No other information was offered.

Oddly, there is very little detailed information available on the 1954-1974 military career of Woods. It is commonly held  that Earl did two tours in Vietnam—the first as an infantry officer, the second with Special Forces. However, in a 2008 Golf Digest profile Woods initially stated, “The first time [’67-’68], I was a personnel officer, with civilian personnel and administrative responsibilities.” Yet this was in Thailand, where, in the same article, Earl said, “I was the special-services officer, and I ran bowling alleys, movie theaters, softball diamonds, libraries, resorts, everything….” Not in Vietnam. And his responsibilities may have been elsewhere. In a 2020 Golf Digest article, the author Tom Callahan writes  “I returned home to a message from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. My Freedom of Information Act request had been granted. Earl Dennison Woods served in the Republic of Vietnam from Feb. 12, 1962 to Feb. 24, 1963, and from Aug. 15, 1970 to Aug. 13, 1971.” Earl may have been one of  President Kennedy’s early advisors in Vietnam.

Interviewed by Charlie Rose in 1997, Earl stated that he saw heavy combat on his second tour  with Special Forces. He did not discuss the locations or military units he served with, and Rose did not inquire. Given the second tour dates of Aug. 15, 1970 to Aug. 13, 1971 Woods missed the May-July 1970 dubious Cambodia invasion, the 8 February – 25 March 1971 disastrous ARVN Lam Son 719 invasion of Laos, and the 30 March 72 – 22 October 1972 Eastertide Offensive, when the bulk of the North Vietnamese Army, with tanks and heavy artillery, struck South Vietnam in a massive offensive whose size and ferocity caught the ARVN and American advisors off guard. During the intense fighting, the towns of An Loc and Loc Ninh were completely destroyed. In the aftermath, both sides had terrible losses. Both claimed success. Where did Earl Woods see action in Vietnam?

In their best selling biography Tiger Woods, Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian write that after returning from his first tour in Vietnam in 1962 [no details are given], Earl trained at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, then volunteered for 6th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, Ranger School, and Airborne School. That sequence seems wrong. Ranger, Airborne, 6th Special Forces seems the more likely order.

Tip of the Spear, a periodical of U.S. Special Operations Command, notes that Tiger has in interest in Army special operations, ant that Earl once served in the now-deactivated 6th Special Forces Group.

According to The Telegraph, a British newspaper: in 1961 Earl was posted to Korea. [No details are given regarding the assignment.] A year later he was sent to Vietnam. In 1966 Earl volunteered for the Green Berets and was appointed Special Services officer in Bangkok, in charge of organizing recreation activities for military personnel. [An unusual assignment for an aspiring Green Beret officer.] In 1970 Woods returned to Vietnam, where he became assistant to ARVN Colonel Nguyen T. Phong [or Vuong Dang Phong]. “They fought together in many tight spots, and Phong more than once saved his life. Woods was so impressed by his friend that he called him “Tiger,” and later named his son in honor of his friend.”

Woods lost touch with Phong after Saigon fell to the  North Vietnamese Army. He hoped his friend would reach out after hearing that Tiger Woods was his son. For Golf Digest the journalist Tom Callahan traveled to Hanoi in 1997 to locate the missing ARVN colonel. He learned that Phong hid for 39 days in Trang Bang, where he was born, then slipped into Saigon to see his family, before surrendering to the NVA on June 15 1973. He was interred in a brutal re-education [i.e. concentration] camp and died three years later. The family, informed of his death in 1983, found a marker for his grave in the jungle, retrieved his remains and reburied him at home. When Earl learned that Phong had died he wept for days.

The Independent,  also a UK newspaper, claims that Woods was an interrogator. “He admitted he had used his experience as a Special Forces interrogator in Vietnam to toughen his son’s psyche [when teaching Tiger golf]. If true, since American interrogation of NVA and VC commonly involved torture, Earl may have tortured enemy POWs.

Several conspiracy websites refer to Woods serving in Thailand, his Special Services duties a cover for his actual CIA work overseeing the torture of enemy POWs, perhaps in relation to the notorious Phoenix program. Later, the sites allege, Woods used mind control interrogation techniques when teaching his son Tiger to play golf. A 1996 Sports Illustrated article quotes Woods on how EST, a controversial self-help method, restored his ability to love, and deepened his relationship with his son Tiger.

The late John Freeman, a Renaissance literature professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, in a paper titled The UnNatural, or Who’s Your Daddy? Tiger Woods, Nike, and Corporate Parenthood stated: “In 1966, [Woods] had volunteered for the Green Berets and saw duty as a Special Services (CIA) Officer in Bangkok, Thailand, as a POW interrogator. Coincidentally, perhaps, the CIA had set up a huge interrogation-torture center in Udorn, Thailand, the country in which he was stationed.”

Given the paucity of reliable detailed information on the military career of Earl Woods, the following is a biographical sketch of his pre-military life.

Born in Manhattan, Kansas his father, Miles Woods,  an epileptic who worked as a street cleaner and caretaker, had five children by his first wife, Viola, and six more (of whom Earl was the youngest) by his second, Maude Carter. Although Miles was a devout Baptist, he was known to swear for 30 minutes uninterrupted. Earl once remarked, “I picked up on that.”

Miles loved baseball, and passed his love of the game on to his son. His second wife, college educated Maude Woods, was determined that her children should make the best of themselves. When Miles died in 1943 Maude found work as a maid. Earl recalled that it “broke her heart.” Maude died when Earl was 15. He was raised by his older sister, Hattie Bell Woods. He graduated from high school in 1949.

Earl attended Kansas State and played baseball, earning a varsity letter in 1952 and 1953. A team- mate recalled the ball game at a Mississippi college where Earl was not allowed on the field because he was black. The entire Kansas State team departed in protest.

Earl broke the Big Eight Conference “color barrier” in baseball in 1951. A catcher, he was offered a contract by the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues. He chose to pursue his education, joined ROTC, and graduated in 1953 with a BS in sociology and was commissioned as an Army lieutenant.

Woods married Barbara Gary in 1954. They divorced in 1968. He met Kultida Punsawad while stationed in Thailand in 1966 and married her in 1969.

In 1972, while stationed at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton, Woods, aged 42, learned to play golf at the Dyker Beach Golf Course. Captivated by the game, he played often for the rest of his life and eventually scored in the 70s. He claimed to be playing close to a scratch handicap level. Retiring  as a lieutenant colonel in 1974, Woods moved to California to work for McDonnell Douglas Corp. Tiger was born in 1975. Coached by his dad on military golf courses in California, Tiger became a child prodigy.

Earl described his coaching techniques in two books: Training a Tiger: A Father’s Guide to Raising a Winner in Both Golf and Life, and Playing Through: Straight Talk on Hard Work, Big Dreams and Adventures with Tiger. Woods coached Tiger until age five, then hired Rudy Duran and John Anselmo, both well-regarded PGA club professionals. In 1993, following Tiger’s third straight title in the USGA Junior Amateur Championship, Earl hired Butch Harmon to develop Tiger’s game further. On meeting Tiger Harmon praised the coaching which Earl, Duran, and Anselmo had provided.

Woods retired from McDonnell Douglas in 1988. He traveled to Tiger’s events when possible for the rest of his life. He hired attorney John Merchant in 1996 to facilitate Tiger’s turning pro,  and to secure sponsorships with Nike, Titleist, and the International Management Group, which made Tiger a multi-millionaire when he turned pro in 1996. Tiger broke all records for sponsorship money in golf. Soon afterward Merchant was fired by Woods.

Earl was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998. He died from a heart attack in 2006. He was 74.

A lengthy 2016 ESPN article on Tiger Woods contemplated the grieving Tiger burying his father.

…..one day perhaps he’ll walk across the field to the place where they left Earl’s ashes, between Maude and Miles [Earl’s mother and father] in the shade of a bush and near a big red rock. He’ll have to find the spot from memory because there is no headstone, even a decade after the funeral. Maybe he wants it private, or is simply unable to take such a final step, but whatever the reason, Tiger Woods never had one placed. He buried his father in an unmarked grave.

Tiger’s choice might have reflected his Buddhism. Or it might have been Earl’s final wish. Whatever the case, in a strange likeness, a small grim stone near a white oak, located in Arlington National Cemetery, in a forlorn parcel of ground easily overlooked, honors twenty-one anonymous Green Berets, killed in El Salvador, a country the U.S. had no business interfering with.




The Chosen One: Sports Illustrated, 1996

In Searh of Tiger Woods, Golf Digest, 1997

Earl Woods–Golf Digest, 2008

In Search of Tiger Phong–Golf Digest, 2020

War Dead Ahead (re Special Forces in El Salvador see MIA = Missing In Arlington)