News & Politics

Tiger Woods Made Me Do It

What made this woman turn her life around? She says, “I just loved the way he hit that ball.”

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

The couch in Anita Baarns’s den is a bit battered, but its soft, well-worn leather is nice to curl up in for a nap or an afternoon of watching golf on television.

For nearly two years, starting in 1998, that’s about all Baarns—once an avid tennis player and horsewoman—could manage following a diagnosis of lupus, a disease of the autoimmune system that left her in constant pain and often too exhausted to get up and make herself a cup of tea.

A native of Holland who came to the United States in 1988, she had taken a course in golf to satisfy a college requirement, but she never pursued the game after graduating in 1993 with a degree in fine art from the University of Maryland. But following her lupus diagnosis, faced with no energy and lots of pain, she often got through the long days by tuning in to golf. She was particularly interested whenever Tiger Woods was in the field.

“I had seen him on TV in a major tournament, and after that I was hooked, totally addicted,” she says, sitting in the Loudoun County farmhouse she shares with her husband, Washington attorney J.T. Martin. “I just loved the way he hit that ball, the fist pumping, always making the big putt, his passion for the game. I would never miss a tournament he was in. I still don’t.”

Woods will spend the first week of July at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club, hosting and playing in his signature event —the AT&T National. Baarns plans to be there to get an up-close view of the man who helped change her life.

By 2002, the medication Baarns had been taking had helped get her off the couch. She told her husband, a member of the Chevy Chase Club, that she wanted to learn the game. Using a set of clubs given to her by a friend, she took a few lessons and began playing, usually just nine holes.

Now, seven years later, Baarns plays as much as she can—with her husband, with friends, with strangers. She enters tournaments at Chevy Chase and at Loudoun Golf and Country Club near her home in Round Hill, Virginia. She has crystal trophies on shelves all around the house, not to mention the scorecard for every round she’s ever played—70 last year on 22 courses.

Baarns has never met Woods, but she’s e-mailed him. “I wanted to thank you for inspiring me to pick up golf,” she began. “It not only changed my life, but watching and playing golf got me through a very difficult time, got me out of a slump, gave me something to focus on, to get better and to never give up!”

Woods’s longtime agent, Mark Steinberg, says, “It really is incredible, but people from all age groups, all demographics, from all over the world have written to him. They’ll say, ‘Thanks for being such an inspiration.’ ”

Tiger’s emergence as the planet’s most visible athlete has had an effect. “There’s no question he’s attracted thousands of minority golfers to the game,” says Joe Louis Barrow, head of the First Tee, a program aimed at attracting inner-city youngsters to golf and using it to improve their educational and life skills. “And it’s not just more minorities playing. Kids are playing who never would have played before.”

The surge in interest has not yet translated into more minority golfers at the sport’s highest level. Woods is the only African-American player on the PGA Tour, and there are none on the women’s LPGA Tour. Barrow thinks it’s a matter of time.

“I remember being on a show with Tiger’s father in 2000, maybe 2001,” he says. “Someone called in and asked Earl Woods, ‘When are we going to see the next Tiger?’ Earl said, ‘It took me 20 years to create a Tiger. Be patient—this is going to take some time.’ ”

Barrow sees more minority golfers in the pipeline—in high-school programs, college programs: “I believe in 20 years there will be more and more on both tours.”

Anita Baarns’s goal is to be a 10 handicap, sometimes shooting in the 70s. “I really just love getting better,” she says. “When I first started, I used to go to Costco to buy golf balls 50 at a time because I lost so many. Now I don’t have to hit as many shots, so I don’t get so tired.

“Looking back, the lupus has almost made my life better. It got me watching golf. It got me watching Tiger. He got me playing, allowed me to be competitive again and do something I really love. My husband jokes that Tiger made me a monster. But it’s all good.”

This article first appeared in the July 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.