There’s something interesting about watching crowds of African-Americans follow Tiger Woods around Augusta National on Easter weekend. When Woods, the son of a black father and Thai mother, arrived on Tour, many of us in black America believed that he was going to be our golfing messiah. When his father, Earl, told SI in 1996 that his son was “the chosen one,” we thought Tiger had come to save us, to show the way toward more opportunities to play the game and succeed in the golf industry.
We knew of the sport, but our knowledge was gained mostly from the fringes, as caddies, cooks and butlers. A few brave souls in the professional ranks — Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Calvin Peete, Jim Thorpe — had given us hope, but golf hadn’t birthed a black champion on par with Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson or Bill Russell.
Then Woods performed his miracle: a 12-shot win at the 1997 Masters against the best players in the world. Suddenly, every sports section in the country had a headline trumpeting Tiger, the first African-American to win a major championship — the Masters, no less. Woods became the hot topic in black barbershops and beauty salons, and Jet and Ebony featured him in their pages. At last we had a golf champion we could call our own. He made us proud to be black.
But almost as soon as the coronation ended, the 21-year-old king threw off the crown, telling us that he was not black, but something he termed “Cablinasian” (a mix of Caucasian, black and Asian). Sure, he did a few Nike commercials with black golf pioneers in which he famously stated that “there are still golf courses that I can’t play,” but he has been mostly silent on racial matters and distant from black America throughout his 10-year run as the best golfer in the world.
After Robinson integrated the major leagues 60 years ago, he became a champion of civil rights. Until his death in 1972 he campaigned for the hiring of black managers and general managers. He understood that as a black man with influence, he was expected to serve his people. Tiger seems to carry no part of that burden. Instead, he has poured his energies into winning tournaments, making appearances for his sponsors and developing plans to construct courses funded by oil money. While it’s not Tiger’s sole responsibility to effect change, the 12-time major champion should do more than build a $25 million learning center in Anaheim while the kids who need help the most live in inner-city areas like Compton, East L.A. and Watts.
During Woods’s reign the number of black golfers has increased — from an estimated 500,000 in 1996 to almost three times that number today. Still, other than Tiger, no African-American has held a PGA Tour card since Thorpe left in 1998. Tim O’Neal is the only black on the Nationwide tour, a mere handful of blacks can be found on the Hooters tour, and there is not a single African-American in any top 20 college program. Few blacks hold top positions in the golf industry. Leon Gilmore, the head of the Champions tour’s Charles Schwab Cup, and Keith Newton, the Champions tour’s director of tournament operations, are the only influential blacks working for the PGA Tour.
The changes we hoped for in 1997 have not materialized, but people of color still follow Tiger as he strides the golf courses of the world. Like the crowds that followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, all they have is their belief in him. Until something more authentic comes along, Tiger is their best hope.