While walking the course during the final round, who do I happen to see? Ernie Banks.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I just had to be here to see this,” Banks replied.
Of course, the man who was mentored by Jackie Robinson as the first African-American player for the Cubs had to be a witness to an epic moment in golf. Watching on TV wasn’t going to cut it.
Naturally, I included Banks’ comments in my story on the historical significance of Woods’ victory. In a subsequent interview, he recalled:
“I played with Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Calvin Peete, Jim Thorpe, Jim Dent, all of them. When Tiger won, I thought about those guys. I heard Charlie Sifford say this many years ago, when he was struggling with everything. He said, `Ernie, one day we’re going to have a young, good-looking black kid come into golf and beat everybody.’ Charlie was right. That’s what happened.”
It wasn’t the last time Ernie and I talked about golf. He loved the game and practically lived at Cog Hill, Chicago’s top public course, during the summer.
If his motto for baseball was “Let’s play two,” I’m sure it was “Let’s play 36” for golf.
Ernie hardly was a casual fan of the pro game. Whenever we would meet, usually at Cog Hill, he wanted to talk about the majors. He always knew all the venues for that year and enjoyed handicapping the field.
Of course, Ernie always wanted to get the latest on Woods. It is hard to believe Woods had a bigger fan. He definitely didn’t have one who hit 512 homers.
Ernie was captivated by Woods’ talent. Despite having knees you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, he often walked the course during tournaments just so he could see him up close. Ernie joked that he was “stalking him.”
“Wherever you see Tiger, you’ll see me,” Ernie said.
He went as far as to seek out Woods’ father, Earl, for a lunch date. Ernie just had to meet him.
Prior to the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah, I asked Ernie for his thoughts about Woods for a Tribune story. It is interesting how a superstar in one sport views a superstar in another sport:
The attraction to Tiger: “One thing, his charisma. Once, I was in the background at Cog Hill, just watching him hit shots. I was like, `Wow.’ When he’s on the course, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
“One thing I always look for in athletes is how much do they love what they’re doing? He really loves it.
“I’ve been to a lot of his clinics. Tiger around kids, he’s in his glory. He loves working with kids, talking with kids. I’ve visited his learning center [in Anaheim].
“I don’t want to sound like a nut, like I’m stalking him. This kid is like a magnet. He just draws me wherever he is. The way he dresses, his smile, his love of what he is doing.
“I’m like a little kid following him.”
The athletic connection: “Unfortunately, I never got into a World Series. I always wanted to see people who could rise above under pressure. I watched Michael Jordan play basketball. Stan Musial, Hank Aaron … guys who play under pressure.
“When Tiger came on, that was the main thing I wanted to see from him. How he would respond under pressure? Then I began to see he was a little bit like me.
“I played the game in Wrigley Field as if there was nobody there but me. I didn’t have any idea about the cheering of the crowd. It was just me and the ball. That’s like Tiger.
“When he plays, he plays as if nobody is out there but him and the ball. I went, `Wow, this kid is amazing.'”
The emotion: “I like that when he hits a bad shot, he expresses his disgust. You’ve got to do that. When I played and struck out, I didn’t do that. I didn’t show any emotion. You’ve got to show your emotion.”
Walking with Tiger: “When I retired, all my kids, former teammates, they all said, `Man, you’ve got to get your knees done. You’re walking like an old man.’
“So one day I was thinking, `I should do it.’ I was motivated to walk nine holes with Tiger Woods. When I came to the Masters [in 1997], I wasn’t able to walk then. I sat up at the 18th hole.
“I did it and I walked with him at last year’s PGA. It was hot, but I wanted to do it. This is why I had my knees done. To walk with this young man on the golf course in a major tournament. It was like, `Wow.’
“People following him thought I was his daddy. They said, `How are you, Earl?’ I’d walk a few more holes, and they said, `That isn’t Earl, that’s Ernie Banks.’ Talk about a high honor. People thought I was Tiger’s daddy.”
Meeting with Woods’ father: “I called up Earl a few years ago. He says, `What? Oh, yeah, I remember you. You played with the Kansas City Monarchs.’ Yes, I did.
“I told him I wanted to come down for lunch. I wanted to see and meet the man who trained Tiger Woods.
“It was such a wonderful experience. We talked about baseball. I knew he played baseball. He was the first black player in the Big Eight. I wanted to know about that.
“I saw where Tiger got his determination. Earl was a very determined man.”
It’s been a while since I last saw Ernie. I never got a chance to talk to him about Woods’ personal problems that derailed his career. Knowing Ernie, I’m sure he remained optimistic that Woods would figure a way out of it. In fact, I’d bet my house he was predicting Woods would win this year’s Masters.
In my 2006 piece, Ernie expressed this wish:
“My next mission before I leave this Earth is to play three holes with Tiger Woods. I’m going to be working on that at the PGA. I’m going to try to catch him between something. I’m going to say, `Tiger, my lifelong goal is to play three holes with you.'”
I don’t know if it ever happened. It would be Woods’ loss if it didn’t.