Whose Tiger?

"Did he smile his work to see?" -William Blake, "Tyger"

People were not happy with Tiger Woods. Three weeks ago, he appeared on the cover of the April issue of GQ magazine in a typically silly spread (you know the kind: "In the limo,fresh from a terribly wearisome photo shoot, Tiger Woods says..."). The interviewer, Charles Pierce, quotes him making some notably off-color remarks, and what was worse, it seemed clear from this interview that Tiger was in the habit of cracking jokes about African-Americans. People did not know quite what to make of it.

Not surprisingly, Pierce reproduces Tiger's indiscretions with barely controllable glee, knowing full well that his copy is hot. Pierce records that while shooting the breeze with the women who were adorning him for the shoot, Tiger "puts the tips of his expensive shoes together, and he rubs them up and down against each other. 'What's this?' he asks the women, who do not know the answer. 'It's a black guy taking off his condom,' Tiger explained." Swissh! Pierce scores his tabloid three-pointer, but the subject reaps the whirlwind of an aghast reading public.

At about the same time, Tiger came under fire for a different and equally revealing reason. Nike, his adoring sponsor, had filmed a commercial that featured him lamenting that, although he was one of the world's best golf professionals, there were still courses in the country at which he was not welcome. The commercial drew sharp criticism and Nike quickly pulled it. The criticism came in the guise of a semantic point: while there are golf courses in the United States at which "black people" are not welcome, Tiger can play wherever the hell he wants--or, so the line goes. But I'm confident that everyone involved knew what was really going on. Although white America insists that Tiger be a "black golfer" (i.e. one who has no business telling rude jokes about African Americans), it insists equally passionately that he not be "threatening" or "racial." In short, Tiger is in a jam.

All of this came together beautifully because of an unexpected coincidence. As nearly every journalist in the English-speaking world has already pointed out, it just so happened that Tiger won the Masters almost fifty years to the day after Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.

Oh, the excitement! But there was one significant problem with this elegant convergence of events: Tiger seemed singularly unexcited. In fact, to the public's considerable befuddlement, he declined President Clinton's invitation to join him for the celebration of Robinson's debut at Shea Stadium last Tuesday night. Tiger's seemingly incomprehensible refusal did not amaze the veteran Tiger watchers, however, and only underscored a broader problem the athlete will face on the image-front: Tiger Woods the person is fundamentally at odds with the safe, unoffending persona his promoters and their co-conspirators in the media seek to project.

This situation has already yielded a fight over Tiger, one that can perhaps be best understood in the context of a little thought experiment. Imagine that it's Sunday, April 13. Tiger has just won the Masters, and, curious observer that you are, you go around asking different people what they would like the headline to be in the newspapers the next day. Some would no doubt prefer "First African-American Wins the Masters." Others, on account of his mother's Thai origins, would like "First Man of Asian Descent Wins the Masters." Some in the younger set would probably want "Youngest Man Ever Wins Masters." But for some reason, I think Tiger would not pick any of these.

Tiger Woods is black, but he doesn't have to be golf's Jackie Robinson. He is also Asian, Native American and young. But more than any of that, he is a stupendous golfer. Bill Clinton and Nike executives aside, I'm convinced his headline of choice would have been: "Woods Shoots Lowest Score Ever at the Masters." And that's OK.

Eric M. Nelson's column appears on alternate Saturdays.

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