Golf will survive Tiger Woods! That’s not the problem!
by Charlie Leck
When Tiger Woods walked up the 18th fairway at Augusta National Golf Club in April of 1997, he was a phenomenon such as golf had never seen – a phenomenon such as American sports had never seen. He was the son of a black man and he was about to win the white man’s most treasured trophy in golf. The scene was in eastern Georgia – almost on the South Carolina border. This was one of the most famous golf clubs – Augusta National – and golf courses in the world. It was also staunchly all white. This area is one of the most racially divided in the land.
The black servants at Augusta slipped out of the clubhouse to look over toward the 18th green to see if they could catch a glimpse of the black golfer who was playing the last hole with an astonishing 12 shot lead.
It was a historic moment in golf! NO! NO! It was a historic moment in sports.
As a young man, I remember Jackie Robinson, in Ebbets Field, tearing around first base and heading toward second with a very unlikely double in mind. Robinson slid wildy toward the base and the second baseman lowered his glove, with the ball settled in it, in a hopeful attempt to tag Jackie’s foot before it reached the “bag.”
“Safe,” the umpire cried out! Because of the hushed silence, the entire stilled stadium heard the verdict.
“Oh, my god!”
I was listening on the radio with my Grandpa Svejda. He didn’t care that Jackie Robinson was a black man. He only cared that he was a Brooklyn Dodger and he had just turned a routine single into a double. For Grandpa, Jackie Robinson was more weaponry to use against the hated Giants.
In a blink, the stadium went from dead quiet to bedlam, as screams of joy erupted from every corner of the grandstands. Jackie was on his feet, standing in the middle of the bag, doffing his cap and flashing the brightest, most beautiful smile that anyone had ever seen. As the first black man in Major League Baseball, he was rewriting the record books. Be sure you understand, many a black man had deserved to play in the league before Jackie Robinson. There had just been a loathsome barrier that kept them out. Jackie brought the barrier crashing down.
And, there had been many a black man before Tiger Woods who might have won The Masters golf championship had they been given the chance. The black caddies, dishwashers, cooks and maintenance men ,who crowded together to watch Tiger Woods walking on to the 18th green that day, knew about those “other” golfers who were just as famous as Tiger in their minds. There were tears in the eyes of more than one of those huddled spectators who had seeped out of the back, working rooms of the clubhouse. They were tears of happiness mingled with tears of sorrow for old Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes, who would have loved the opportunity that time and circumstance had given Tiger Woods.
Sure, Augusta National took in its first black member in 1991. The action was routinely regarded as a necessary action because the United States Golf Association was not going to recognize any golf tournaments played at golf clubs that were not integrated.
Tiger Woods was not only going to win this important, major championship on that day, but he was going to cram it down the throats of the all those other players who trailed so far behind.
I, personally, had never seen anything like it in golf and thought I never would again – until, a few years later, Woods went on to the win the U.S. Open Golf Championship, played at the Pebble Beach course on the Monterey Peninsula in California, by an even wider margin.
This was a man who established himself not only as the greatest superstar of golf, but as the brightest and most promising athlete in the nation. He commanded million dollar appearance fees all over the world and became the nation’s first “billion dollar sports star.”
Oh, how the mighty are fallen! [II Samuel 1:19]
Now the jokers are taking odds on whether Tiger's number of major championship victories will be greater or smaller than his number of mistresses. I should be the last person in the world to judge the moral character of Tiger Woods and I will be. I do know this, however: For me, the joy of watching him play at his game on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon in summer is seriously tarnished. His character is diminished and his image is clouded. He may be the greatest golfer to ever live, but there is something special about the place of Jack Nicklaus in golf’s history books that is now very, very secure. The reputation of Jack Nicklaus as golf’s greatest player and man will not be shaken. Watching Jack enjoy his senior years, with his wife, Barbara, as his constant companion, says something very special to me about the man – something I like very, very much.
Tiger may win some more events by a dozen shots or more, but he will likely never again capture the hearts of the world’s golfers the way he once did. And my days of utter wonder as I watched him play are over now. From now on, he’s just another guy and the roars that rolled up and down the fairways whenever he made an incredible shot will never again be quite the same or quite as loud.
Oh, Tiger, you broke the hearts of those of us who loved you! Now, fallen, you are just like the rest of us; that is, very, very ordinary.
Tiger's days as the ultimate pitchman may be over unless some kind of immediate image repair can be accomplished. Woods appears unready to come out of hiding soon. [See the NY Times article about Tiger's current pitchman status!]