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Tiger Shoots a Bogey in Social Consciousness

July 23, 2002|MICHAEL D'ANTONIO

Golf will remember Tiger Woods' on-the-course performance at this year's British Open at Muirfield because he blew his chance at a historic grand slam. But millions of women golfers, and not a few men, will remember more keenly how Woods betrayed them with his comments about men-only clubs like Scotland's Muirfield and our Augusta National, home of the Masters. "They're entitled to set up their own rules the way they want them," Woods said. Later he added, "There is nothing you can do about it."

Anyone old enough to have witnessed the civil rights movement, or to have read about it, knows better. In fact, if Woods wants to know what one great golfer can do about segregation, he can look to Gary Player of South Africa. In the 1950s and '60s, as he rose to fame as a champion, Player initially supported his country's apartheid policies and even mouthed the argument that blacks were not up to the challenge of full citizenship.

Experience and travel soon changed Player's mind, so much so that he became a vocal advocate for the inclusion of blacks in all realms of life back home, where he was by far the most popular celebrity. He spoke often on the topic and wrote pleading articles for South African newspapers.

In 1971, Player met with Prime Minister John Vorster, a virulent racist, and demanded that he be allowed to bring the African American pro Lee Elder to South Africa for a series of matches to be attended by both black and white spectators. Vorster sat silent for a moment and then answered with a mutter: "Go ahead."

The largest galleries ever seen in South Africa witnessed Elder and Player as they conducted the first-ever sports competition there involving black and white athletes. Spectators of all races watched as Elder matched, and sometimes surpassed, Player. The nation learned that the races could share competition and the grandstand in peace.

Thirty years later, when I interviewed Player for a book, he seemed prouder of his efforts to overcome racism in his homeland than of anything he had done in golf. Yet he also was puzzled that none of his American peers ever talked about social issues that intersected with their sport.

Indeed, for generations white American golfers kept mum about racism in golf, refusing to take a stand for fear it would offend those who controlled invitations to tournaments like the Masters.

Player, understanding the power that came with his popularity, was far more willing to take such risks in his country. Woods has the same kind of power. He is, arguably, the most popular athlete in any sport in all the world. His appearance at a tournament guarantees its success. His absence invariably means that fewer fans turn out, and TV ratings plummet.

He is so powerful, in fact, that a recent rumor that he might help establish a tour for premier players made many in golf wonder whether the PGA Tour would survive against such competition.

Whether Woods chooses to employ his power on behalf of women, who are second-class citizens in the game, depends on his view of himself. On the few occasions when he has talked about such issues, it has been in mild terms that place nearly all of the game's sins in the past. His description of himself as a "Cablanasian," rather than as a black man, has served to separate him, in the minds of some, from the struggles of his African American forebears in the game. And when it comes to helping others, he seems content to limit his work on behalf of others to donations and appearances at charity events. As he returns from Scotland and the worst score he ever posted as a professional, Woods will no doubt be rethinking parts of his game and considering some changes.

Many of us will hope that he also reconsiders what it means to be a powerful public figure in a game still stained by prejudice. Gary Player did, and his country was the better for it.

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Michael D'Antonio is a New York writer.

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