Maybe Tiger Woods will become the champion that America needs to face down its demons
An upcoming ESPN documentary ‘Tiger Woods: America’s Son,’ has an interview with a 14-year-old Woods in which he does something he hasn’t in recent years —speak candidly about racism. Responding to the interviewer’s question about whether he’s ever faced any, Woods replies without hesitation…”Not every day, but every time I go to a major country club, always feel it, can always sense it. People always staring at you. ‘What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.'” Woods goes on to say that his motivation to win the Masters Tournament comes from how, “Blacks have been treated there. (People say) they shouldn’t be there. If I win that tournament it might be really big for us.”
In the US, sports icons are unrivalled in the power they wield when it comes to making a statement, or taking a stand.
Professional sport is much more than entertainment or big business in the US; Americans across the country are united as fans—whether it’s football, baseball, basketball, or golf. And yet, ask any African-American athlete and they’ll tell you the same thing: that irrespective of the success they may have achieved, or the money they’d made, they’ve all faced subliminal prejudice in their lives and careers. Against that backdrop the power of sport to highlight racial disparity cannot be understated. Muhammad Ali put it best when he said, “When you saw me in the boxing ring fighting, it wasn’t just so I could beat my opponent. My fighting had a purpose. I had to be successful in order to get people to listen to the things I had to say.” Ali spoke and acted fearlessly: his refusal to be drafted into the army to go fight in the Vietnam War because his conscience wouldn’t allow it, led to a prison term, a fine and loss of prime boxing years. And who can forget that apocryphal story of Ali tearing off his Olympic Gold Medal and throwing it into the Ohio River after being denied entry into a restaurant in a deeply segregated Louisville.
More recently, in 2016 NFL player Colin Kaepernick went down on one knee when the national anthem was being played in the stadium before a game to register his protest against what he deemed as injustice to the African-American community. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in a post-game interview. Since then a number of players from other sports have joined his non-verbal protest. The blowback has claimed a few careers, not just Kaepernick’s.
Until the mid-to-late 20th century, no game typified white privilege as much as golf. That claimed the careers of talented players like South African Sewsunker Sewgolum who defeated none other than Gary Player to win the 1965 Natal Open. Sewgolum’s picture receiving the trophy standing in the rain outside the Durban Country Club because he wasn’t allowed to enter the clubhouse, made news around the world. Sewgolum’s success was a taint on the apartheid government that eventually banned him from playing golf, or even entering a golf course. He died in penury in 1978 at the age of 48.
In the US, Country Clubs were, (and continue to be, to a large degree), playgrounds for wealthy white members. Earlier this month as I watched Woods, the 2019 defending champion put the Green Jacket on Dustin Johnson, I was reminded that it was only in 1990 that Augusta invited and accepted its first African-American member. With his expansive knowledge of golf history, Woods would know that fact all too well. Given that I’ve often wondered why Woods has rarely spoken about prejudice in the past few years. He’s certainly borne the brunt of it: I remember the brutally racist comments on online forums when Tiger’s infamous cheating scandal broke. The slurs transcended his personal transgressions, and played on racial stereotypes. In that remarkable interview in the ESPN documentary, a teenaged Woods is remarkably prescient about the future and the impact his success might have. “Since I’m Black, I might be even bigger than Jack Nicklaus,” Woods adds. “I might be even bigger than him. To the Blacks. I might be a Michael Jordan in basketball. Something like that.”
No one could have possibly known just how larger-than-life he would become: bigger than Nicklaus and Jordan and all his contemporaries put together, Woods is unquestionably the pre-eminent athlete of our times. Next month Woods will team up with his young son, Charlie Woods at the father-and-son PNC Championship, where, by all indications, the duo have little chance of winning. Unless, as some commentators have cheekily suggested, Charlie carries his dad—who’s out of form and struggling with an iffy back again—to victory. No, it’s clear that participating in this event with his son is not about winning but giving Charlie an opportunity to experience the game with his father. With his best playing years behind him, there are indications that Woods might be more aware of his legacy—one that goes beyond golf, chasing records, and winning. And as a father that legacy could be instrumental in leaving a better world for the next generation.
The time to raise his voice, if Woods chooses to do so now, could not come at a more critical juncture. Fuelled by an egregiously divisive election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and sadly, a resurgent white supremacist movement in 2020, the ugly racial rift in American society has surfaced yet again. Maybe Woods will become the champion that America needs to face down its demons. That’s what we’d hope to see: every society gains most that face it the best.
(A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game. Views expressed are personal.)