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Tiger's a hero in sports world; Mandela was a hero to everyone

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods shot a one-under 71 on Thursday.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.

Sports has the power to change the world; to inspire, to unite people and to speak to the youth in a language they understand. — Nelson Mandela

In a time long ago, the late Earl Woods likened his precocious young son to not just Jack Nicklaus — or indeed any sporting champion — but to Buddha and Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.

Perhaps because Tiger wasn’t much of a carpenter, he left out Jesus Christ.

“Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Earl boasted to Sports Illustrated in 1996.

“Because he's playing a sport that's international. Because he's qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. He's the bridge between the East and the West. There is no limit because he has the guidance.

“I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations! The world is just getting a taste of his power.”

It might sound, with the benefit of hindsight, a tad fanciful.

And, if there were any doubt, the whole façade tumbled down in November 2009.

But maybe there was something to it back then.

Earl Woods saw in sports what Mandela — who brilliantly used the 1995 rugby World Cup to unite his divided, beloved South Africa — also saw.

That it had the power to change the world; to inspire and unite; to speak to the disparate in a common language.

Tiger spoke that language to billions.

They watched him in awe from all corners of the globe.

He was, indeed, special.

According to Earl Woods, Mandela knew it when he first met Tiger, in 1998.

“Tiger was playing there, and we went to Nelson Mandela's summer home,” Earl told Golf Digest.

“We went up to his residence, and were escorted in to see him, with the instructions that there were to be no flash pictures — the years in captivity had sensitized his eyes too much. So as soon as we walked in, they locked eyes, and they recognized each other.

“And they acknowledged each other and spoke to each other as equals.

“It was like a teacher talking to a pupil, but acknowledging that the student is clearly superior to my other students, so I have to pay special attention to him, because he's going to do great things.

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“And Nelson counseled him, telling him that he did have this ability and that he had to go out and do a lot of good in the world. I sat there and marveled at their complete ease with each other. It was marvelous to see.”

On Thursday, Woods finished a so-so round of 71 at his Northwestern Mutual World Challenge and was greeted with the news of Mandela’s death, at the age of 95.

“I got a chance to meet him with my father back in '98,” Woods said.

“He invited us to his home, and it was one of the most inspiring times I've ever had in my life. It's a sad day for many people around the world.”

Woods has told the story of meeting Mandela many times; how he and his father feeling a “presence” in the room while they awaited him turned around to see Mandela folding paper in the back of the room.

“The energy that he has, that he exudes, is unlike any person that I’ve ever met,” Woods has said.

Later on Thursday, like many, he took to Twitter to pay his respects.

“Pop and I felt your aura when we met. I feel it today and I will feel it forever. You have done so much for humanity … “

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“You will always be in my heart Mr Mandela.”

What he didn’t say, of course, was that Earl over-reached on the impact his son would have on the world.

Tiger was special but he used that power to sell Gatorade and clothes with a swoosh and unfashionable American cars.

He was the next Jordan, not the next Mandela.

Tiger, I’ve long suspected, has known that all along.

They say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But Mandela refused to succumb to that temptation, and even after 27 years of imprisonment, chose to look beyond bitterness and vengeance to a peaceful future for all his people, both black and white.

“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 Thursday.

“And 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.”

Who he was, was a hero. Not a sporting hero; a real one.

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