AP Sports Columnist
Tiger Woods has a lot on his mind these days. For the first time in four years he’s not holding a major title, and soon he’ll head across the ocean to play the British Open on a course he’s never seen.
For most of this week he’s been preoccupied with a tournament he helped found and serves as the host. Odds are on Sunday he’ll stand on the 18th green and present himself the winner’s check.
Trying to be the greatest golfer ever is a tough business. There’s no room for mistakes and, with each passing major championship, it becomes more difficult, at least statistically, to pass the record of 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus.
The reason why Woods even has a chance is that he’s so focused, so single-minded. He doesn’t just play golf, he works at it.
He lost a shot at the U.S. Open because he couldn’t make any putts. He’s making almost everything he looks at this week, but only because he spent countless hours in between refining his stroke on the putting green.
Former football great Jim Brown surely appreciates that. He didn’t become the player he was by taking shortcuts, either.
What Brown doesn’t appreciate is that Woods doesn’t seem to be burdened by much of a social conscience. He thinks Woods should be doing more – far more – than just playing golf and making money.
He believes that Woods’ quest for greatness comes with a responsibility the greats take on.
“You know what’s so interesting about Tiger to me?” Brown said. “He is a killer, he will run over you. … But as an individual for social change? Terrible. Terrible. Because he can get away with teaching kids to play golf, and that’s his contribution.”
Brown made the comments last week on HBO’s “Real Sports,” and Woods wasn’t his only target. He didn’t name the other, but you can be pretty sure his initials are MJ and he used to play basketball for the Chicago Bulls.
“There are one or two individuals in this country that are black that have been put in front of us as an example,” he told host Bryant Gumbel. “But they’re basically under a system that says, hey, they’re not going to deal with certain things. Yes, that disappoints me because I know they both know better.”
Brown isn’t the first to be miffed at Woods for not doing more for others. Martha Burk wasn’t very happy with him when she tried to force Augusta National to admit women members, and the response from Woods was that it was a private club and, hey, there was nothing he could do about it.
Like Woods, Brown was a minority trailblazer in sports. Unlike Woods, he was socially active in the turbulent 1960s and still works to control gang violence.
But the urgency felt by a black man from a generation that grew up being forced to use separate drinking fountains and ride in the back of the bus throughout the South to speak out about change isn’t felt by a black man whose devotion to golf is matched seemingly only by his devotion to make as much money as humanly possible.
Indeed, with a person of mixed heritage much like himself running for president, Woods wouldn’t even publicly endorse Barack Obama. He never gave his reasons – who knows, he might have liked John McCain – but the fact Buick was paying him $8 million a year and Republicans tend to buy Buicks might have something to do with it.
Jordan had a similar reaction when asked to intervene with a photo op on behalf of a black Senate candidate in North Carolina in the 1990s. He declined, saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Woods defended himself this week, saying his Tiger Woods Foundation has done good things for lots of children and that he plans to be involved in charitable activities for years to come. That’s true, though it doesn’t obscure the fact that Woods goes out of his way not to take stands on any issue that might generate controversy,
Contrast that to Muhammad Ali, who lost three years of his career for taking a stand against the draft during the Vietnam War. Or Curt Flood, whose career basically ended when he stood up against the right of baseball owners to treat players like cattle.
Times have changed, and the issues are now different. Things like the lack of women members at Augusta National just don’t seem so important compared to societal changes of the past, though if the club was still excluding blacks like it did in the past it surely would have been different for Woods.
So Woods treads carefully and goes on with his quest to become the greatest golfer ever. That’s not going to change, and it’s not likely Brown’s slap on the wrist will suddenly prompt him to begin speaking from his bully pulpit.
Because while Brown may want him to save the world, Woods seems more concerned with just trying to save par.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org.