When loving Tiger feels more obligatory than unconditional
Words by Richard Johnson
Light / Dark
Let’s start 16 years ago in my parents’ living room in Gainesville, Florida, watching the 16th hole at the final round of the Masters. There’s a ball hanging on the lip of the cup for what seems like an eternity. It drops and the crowd goes wild. Uncle Verne bellows, “OH, WOW!” You probably roared in your living room. I most certainly did not.
I wasn’t watching for Tiger Woods. Twelve-year-old me was actually rooting for Chris DiMarco, a product of the University of Florida like I would be one day. It was the start of what has never been an easy relationship.
As a young Black golf lover, it would be a lot easier if I could tell you a clear story of that ball tumbling in on 16 and how it spurred me in adolescent wonder to beg my mom to buy me clubs and dive into this lifelong game. No, I came to love it on my own, a full decade later. I still had love for the Big Cat; for me, his accomplishments on the course make him the GOAT.
But Tiger’s April 2021 car accident forced me to reckon with some complex personal feelings for him. For a few stomach-churning minutes, I feared he was dead. As it became clear he would remain with us, I entered a second cut of emotions. I hadn’t yet dealt with what he meant to me, at least beyond the superficial “I would like to watch him play golf again.” I netted out in a place where I’m not entirely comfortable: Tiger’s still my guy, but I don’t know how much of my admiration is duty-bound and how much is genuine affection.
I do know that I’m thankful for the 2019 Masters. At that point, I truly cared about golf and worried that Tiger was washed. His back surgeries and chip yips didn’t scare me because of the legend I’d lost, but rather one whose prime I lived through but perhaps didn’t properly appreciate. I realized that Tiger’s brilliance may have to exist to me more on YouTube than in real time. But I got to witness the red shirt chasing a green jacket. Golf-fan achievement unlocked.
Sports legends are mostly defined by what they produce and how they produce it. Trophies are easily quantifiable. But that doesn’t feel like enough for me, because Tiger is not simply what he’s done on the course. It puts a ceiling on his impact to say he’s just a golfer. And if that’s true, then what other influence is there to be had? I come around to race.
It’s the convoluted part of his upbringing that was at its thorniest right after he won the 1997 Masters, when he famously told Oprah and the world that he was not Black, but rather “Cablinasian.” He said that to acknowledge his full heritage, including his mother, who is Thai. Plenty of ink’s been spilled over that word, but here’s where I landed: This is America, and whether we like it or not, an ounce of Black in your blood will always override the rest of one’s racial identity. Tiger is no different.
To say that Black people—or any person of color—are the only ones who cling to representation is wrong. White people do too; they just happen to be the most represented class in *vaguely gestures at basically every facet of American life.* It’s normalized that a young white male golfer may see himself in Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson. The “or” in that sentence speaks volumes because it acknowledges a choice, and that’s the difference.
To be a Black golfer in the age of Tiger is somehow both aspirational and stifling. On one hand, I think the overall level of acceptance in the golf industry is certainly better than in bygone eras, but on the other, Black golfers before me got to choose between Lee Elder or Calvin Peete or Jim Thorpe.
Golf’s mythmakers (Earl Woods among them) sought an easy way out through Tiger. He was both Messiah and exit strategy from the game’s inclusion problem. It’s poetic to tell the story of racism in modern golf starting with Clifford Roberts saying “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be Black” and ending with Woods walking up the 18th at Augusta in 1997. Linear progress is neat. It’s less tidy to admit that as caddies phased out of local clubs, so did the clearest foothold for Black players to get into the game. (That leads to even more-complicated questions, like “If we’re not subservient to white people, then where do we fit in this country?” but that’s for another time.)
The bean counters in golf’s major organizations will count me as one of a new wave of Black golfers that Tiger produced. I’m supposed to be the manifestation of the prophecy Earl foretold where his son would bring true multiculturalism to golf and, lo, the wider world beyond it. You only have to look at the course you most recently played to know that never came to pass.
I’m not here with a love of golf because Tiger was a trailblazer. By the time I came of age, he was exiting his father’s shadow to become his own man and brand; it was less about race and more about the many bags to secure. Whether a video game or a polo, the Tiger I consumed growing up was designed simply to push me to further consume. Make no mistake: That’s Tiger’s right. It is folly to demand a person of color be the standard bearer for their race. To live within that truth is to acknowledge that Tiger failed Earl’s grand mission, but it’s not one he could have succeeded at anyway.
For all of Tiger’s on-course and marketing success, the golf world still looks like a golf ball: There’s some color on it, but it’s mostly white. Even though the Cam Champs and Harold Varners are out there, they’ve yet to realize their promise. Tiger’s still basically all Black golf fans have. And if the greatest golfer of all time can’t dramatically change the face of the sport over the course of two decades, it’s much more of an indictment of golf than of him.
So, the poster still goes up on the wall, because he’s the best and because he looks like me, regardless of whether I recall everything he did—and whether I was even rooting for him or not.
Richard Johnson is usually a college-football journalist who appears on the SEC Network and co-hosts the Split Zone Duo podcast. His written work has been featured in The Washington Post, Slate and FiveThirtyEight.