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There’s absolutely no way he could have known but Rudy Duran held the future of an entire sport in his hands throughout the early eighties.

Now based at Chalk Mountain Golf Course in Atascadero – roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco – Duran was working at Heartwell Golf Course in Long Beach in 1980 when the door to his pro shop opened and in walked Tida Woods with her four-year-old son Tiger.

Eighteen months earlier, little Tiger had earned national exposure with an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show. He had wowed fellow guests Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart with his seemingly supernatural talent for golf. Are you kidding me? He’s only two? Etcetera.

Soon after, Tida and her husband Earl decided they wanted their little boy to start taking lessons. Earl had shown Tiger the basics using a makeshift net he’d set up in their garage. However, Tiger needed better guidance, professional guidance.

The couple settled on Duran after learning of the hugely successful junior golf programme he was running out of Heartwell. He had more than 100 kids signed up, each of whom enjoyed free, unlimited access to the par-3 course.

It may or may not have helped that, like Earl, he also had a military background. It was during his time in the Air Force, in fact, that Duran learned to play golf.

Even so, at four-years-old and barely able to see over the counter, Tiger was a lot younger and smaller than most of the kids he taught. Eight, nine, ten? Sure. But four was almost unheard of.

Still, Duran’s interest was piqued. What the hell? he figured. Let’s see what the kid’s made of.

What happened next changed the game forever.

* * *

Rudy Duran 2

The Performance Centre at Archerfield Links is, without question, one of the most remarkable facilities of its kind. Located at the heart of the multi-million pound facility – itself, situated between Gullane and North Berwick – the centre is packed with all of the latest, cutting-edge, state-of-the-art equipment. TrackMan, V1 Video, GEARS, SAM PuttLab, SAM BalanceLab, it’s all there. If you’re serious about becoming the very best golfer you can be, this is the place for you.

Now 72, the softly-spoken Duran is relaxing in a huge leather armchair next to one of the simulators. His slender frame is almost swallowed whole by the seat.

He has been invited to Scotland to lead a week-long junior coaching camp by Oliver Morton, one of the pros based at the centre, and he’s halfway through it as we meet.

“It’s going great,” he smiles. “The kids are so eager to learn and this place is absolutely incredible. It’s been a lot of fun.”

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Fun is a word that comes up a lot in conversation with Duran, particularly as it relates to his own coaching philosophy. He’s not a method coach. Rather, he has six principles that he swears by: golf is easy; golf is fun; golf is about relationships; golf demands our best effort; the student is the expert on the student; and players learn through small, repeated doses.

These were the same values he stood for when Tida and Tiger visited him that first, fateful day. He remembers it as clearly today as then.

“We went down to the driving range and I teed up three balls in a row for him,” he says. “Tiger got out his little cut down two-and-a-half wood – they really did a nice job getting the club to fit him – and he went pow, pow, pow. He hit these three perfect shots in a row. I said, ‘Whoa! I would love to help you with your game and you can play here anytime you want.’

Rudy Duran 3

“After he hit those shots, we went over to the chipping green and I dropped a few balls for him. Again, he took out his cut-down wedge and started pitching shots up on to the green like he’d been doing this for a hundred years.”  

Duran knew talent when he saw it. Never mind coaching, a brief flirtation with playing professionally exposed him to some of the very best players in the game. He understood the fine margins between great and exceptional. What he saw in Tiger that first day stunned him.  

“He had incredible instincts. He could hit all different shots the first time more than anybody else. So, even though his skills weren’t refined – let’s face it, he was four, they were never going to be – he was still capable of hitting the shot a high percentage of the time.   

“You know, a lot of players can hit great shots but can you do it ninety times out ninety, eighty times out of ninety, seventy, sixty, fifty, whatever. How many times can you hit that great shot? The ability to do that in all environments and accounting for variables like nerves and so on, that’s what I believe Tiger’s real gift is.”  

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Duran likens it to owning an expensive race car. “A car doesn’t drive itself,” he says. “You need to be able to drive it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how good the car is, you’re probably going to drive it into a wall. So, Tiger had a good golf swing but what was even more impressive was the way he was able to use it. From a very early age, he used it really, really well.”  

Much has been written over the years about Tiger being “born with talent” and that he was always “destined for greatness”. Duran sees it somewhat differently.   

“He was a sponge for knowledge and a real quick learner,” he says. “He always wanted to know more but, at the same time, was capable of staying present. You know, he was good at a lot of things. Video games, for example. We spent a lot of time playing Super Mario Brothers and he was really good at them. He loved to win, too, and when he did, he let you know all about it, believe me!” 

Rudy Duran 4

Clearly, Duran didn’t play Nintendo with all his students. The fact he did so with Woods – often picking him up and dropping him off after lessons in his white Porsche – is illustrative of the strong relationship he established not just with Tiger but with Earl and Tida, too.  

“They were wonderful people,” he smiles. “Earl was very lighthearted, he liked to laugh and was really easy to be around. As was Tida. Not at all like some people might think.  

“There’s this misconception that they were trying to create a tour pro from almost the moment Tiger was born. I didn’t see any evidence of that. If Tiger had come home from school at, say, seven years old and said, ‘Mum, dad, I want to start playing basketball and stop playing golf’, they would have said that’s absolutely fine.   

“The most important thing for them was that he did his homework and got good grades. That was number one. If he did that and he had the time, he was allowed to pursue his other hobbies. It just so happened that his favourite hobby was playing golf.”  

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For six years, Duran was Woods’ coach, their lessons mostly one-on-one and primarily spent on the course as opposed to the range. It was only when Duran moved to San Luis Obispo, a four-hour drive away, that their relationship ended.  

“It was a career choice,” he explains. “I had the opportunity pick up the lease on a golf course. I wasn’t thinking of coaching Tiger for a living. Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing him and spending time with him, Earl and Tida, but I still had to make a living, so I decided to get into the business of being a golf course owner and operator.”  

Woods went on to be coached for seven years by a former PGA Tour pro, the late John Anselmo, before teaming up with Butch Harmon as he prepared to turn professional. Like everybody else, Duran watched Woods’ early years on tour with fascination that, at times, bordered on awe and disbelief.  

“It’s funny, you know, I never had any thoughts that he was going to change the game. I mean, he was, of course, amazing at playing golf and he won a high percentage of the time. Maybe like 70% of the tournaments he entered as a junior, he ended up winning.  

“But he wasn’t invincible. Like, the first US Amateur Championship that he entered, he didn’t even qualify for it. He was so much better than everyone else at his age but I honestly had no idea where it would go. I just knew that he was really good.”  

It’s hard to overstate the significance of Woods’ Masters victory in 1997. It was a win that transcended the sport. There was, of course, the cultural significance of a young black man winning a major championship in a sport dominated by white men and at a club where people of colour had, for so long, been treated so terribly.  

It was a win watched by a record television audience for golf, an estimated 44 million viewers tuning in to the final round in the USA alone. And then there was the record-breaking nature of Woods’ victory. He finished 12 shots clear of his nearest challenger, to date the biggest winning margin in Masters history. His 18-under-par winning total also set a new tournament record that stood until 2020 and, at 21, Woods became the youngest man to slip on a Green Jacket.   

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By sheer fluke, Duran happened to be at Augusta National to witness his former protégé – a kid he once dubbed ‘Mozart in spikes’ – win his maiden major.  

“I remember being in the clubhouse and having lunch with a friend on the Thursday,” he recalls. “Lee Westwood and Sam Torrance were sitting at a table near us and we were all looking at the scoreboard on the wall. It showed Tiger had shot 40 on the front nine. My friend and I looked at each other and said, ‘Uh oh, that’s not looking too good’. Then he came home in 30 to be fourth at the end of that day and just three shots off the lead. That was — yeah, that was pretty cool.”

Duran was by the 18th on Sunday when Woods sealed the deal. “I saw Earl actually. He came over to me and he said, ‘Rudy, we did it! We did it!’ It was incredible. Just incredible.”  

The quarter-century since that win has taken Woods and Duran down different paths. Woods has gone on to become the single most transformative and important golfer of his generation and, arguably, of all time. Duran, meanwhile, has forged a reputation as one of the top junior golf coaches in the US. He has introduced more young players to, as he describes it, “guided self-discovery” than he can count and, despite most of his peer group now several years into their retirement, he continues to do so. This, evidently, is more than a job for him. It’s a passion.

“I don’t try and fit the kids I work with into a mold,” he says. “Instead, I try to make them self-aware of what they do when they play well. Tiger, as you can imagine, was all over that.

“For me, it’s about sending them home thinking that they’ve actually figured something out themselves. That, I think, is far more rewarding for a young kid than being taught and told to do this and do that.

“Very often, I think, coaching is too directive. There’s an awful lot of telling and not much in the way of guiding.

“Now, don’t get me wrong, I have seen some successes in that environment, but I just don’t think it’s all that good.

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“For me, it takes the fun factor out of it and and if a kid isn’t enjoying something, they might not want to keep playing.”

He insists on keeping the experience of learning to play golf positive.

“Tiger has always been super-genius at doing that,” he adds. “He may not always be happy with how he’s playing but he shows up to every shot and commits to it 100%.

“You’ll hear other people talk contantly about the things they do wrong. You know, ‘I lifted my head’ and so on. That’s no good. Recognise it but don’t dwell on it. Tiger, and Earl and Tida for that matter, were really good at embracing the positive.”

Duran and Tiger have seen each other a handful of times over the years. In January 2000, for example, when Duran won the PGA Tour’s Card Walker Award for contributions to junior golf, Woods was on-hand to present him with it.

Largely, though, the old pro has observed his greatest student from afar. He watches with quiet pride, enormous satisfaction and, above all else, total gratitude.

“People often ask me what I’m most proud of from my time working with Tiger,” he says. “Well, that’s easy. I’m most proud of not messing him up.”

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This article first appeared in issue 196 of bunkered. To subscribe, click here. International subscriptions also available.


author headshot

Michael McEwan is the Deputy Editor of bunkered and has been part of the team since 2004. In that time, he has interviewed almost every major figure within the sport, from Jack Nicklaus, to Rory McIlroy, to Donald Trump. The host of the multi award-winning bunkered Podcast and a member of Balfron Golfing Society, Michael is the author of three books and is the 2023 PPA Scotland 'Writer of the Year' and 'Columnist of the Year'. Dislikes white belts, yellow balls and iron headcovers. Likes being drawn out of the media ballot to play Augusta National.

Deputy Editor

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