Today we welcome a guest blog post from Lane Demas, author of Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf, on Tiger Woods and his legacy for African American golfers.
Game of Privilege is a groundbreaking history of African Americans and golf, exploring the role of race, class, and public space in golf course development, the stories of individual black golfers during the age of segregation, the legal battle to integrate public golf courses, and the little-known history of the United Golfers Association (UGA)–a black golf tour that operated from 1925 to 1975. Demas charts how African Americans nationwide organized social campaigns, filed lawsuits, and went to jail in order to desegregate courses; he also provides dramatic stories of golfers who boldly confronted wider segregation more broadly in their local communities. As national civil rights organizations debated golf’s symbolism and whether or not to pursue the game’s integration, black players and caddies took matters into their own hands and helped shape its subculture, while UGA participants forged one of the most durable black sporting organizations in American history as they fought to join the white Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA).
Game of Privilege is available now in both print and e-book editions.
Tiger Woods and his career are officially history.
No, this is not another mean-spirited screed; a sportswriter proclaiming the once-greatest golfer can barely hit the ball today, a tabloid promising more lurid details on the star’s “shocking” downfall, or another fan angry that people still care when Woods is now just the such-and-such ranked golfer in the world. (#987, as of this writing)
Can they really not understand why we’re still interested in Tiger? Do they really prefer to read about #986? (No offense to Mr. Jake Roos of South Africa, I’m sure he’s an interesting guy.)
At any rate, I have no idea what the future holds for Tiger Woods on the golf course. I won’t even speculate. What I do know is that the recent attention surrounding his personal and professional “decline” led to a missed opportunity, for this past April marked the twentieth anniversary of his first victory at the world’s most important golf event: The 1997 Masters Tournament at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club. Yes, it’s been twenty years since 44 million U.S. viewers watched 21-year-old Tiger dominate the field, win his first major championship, and tearfully embrace his father Earl on the eighteenth green.
So whether or not his golf career is history, it’s at least time to consider Tiger Woods as history.
And here, at a moment when the star’s light is fading and some are questioning the legacy of his accomplishments, I have perhaps a different perspective. As a historian, I believe that the past decade has seen the historical significance of Tiger Woods grow, not shrink. Even as his popularity and prowess fades, even if he may never reach the expectations many had in the 1990s – heck, even if a better golfer should soon come along (unthinkable at the height of Tigermania) – it’s still likely that Woods will make the history textbooks of 2050, 2100, and beyond.
Why? Because it’s increasingly clear that Tiger Woods was the largest pop culture figure associated with the discussion of racial identity – blackness, whiteness, multiracialism, etc. – at a pivotal moment in American history when those ideas evolved swiftly. In 1997, the media considered Woods significant in much the same way as numerous other African American sporting pioneers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Likewise, most of the 44 million watching him win the Masters channeled figures like baseball star Jackie Robinson, or boxer Joe Louis, to describe the moment a black athlete reached the pinnacle of a sport long plagued by racial segregation. Ironically, some wondered if Woods would draw less attention because golf was not nearly as popular as the likes of basketball, baseball, and football. Quite the contrary, the legend of Tiger exploded into the twenty-first century precisely because he dominated golf, a game historically linked with colonialism, wealth, power, privilege, and whiteness. That alone means Woods is more likely to make future textbooks than, say, Michael Jordan – Tiger’s contemporary (and friend) who practically all believe is the greatest basketball player ever. (I can already report a surprising number of my students don’t know or care much about His Airness.)
But those of us older than college students know that something else intriguing happened in 1997. While introducing himself to the world on The Oprah Winfrey Show, young Woods gently reminded Winfrey (herself a recent inclusion in some history textbooks) that he considered himself “Cablinasian” – an amalgam of Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian – and that at times he felt offended when referred to as just “African American.”
Looking back at the overwhelming media coverage devoted to Woods in 1997 (thousands of pages), what jumps out today is the negative reaction Cablinasian received. Critics from all walks of life lashed out. Historic civil rights organizations, plenty of black political and social leaders, and many black celebrities all rebuked young Tiger. “I told him Thai people don’t get hate mail, black people do,” remarked his new friend, basketball star Charles Barkley. Indeed, the far-right threats Woods had received ever since his days at Stanford University said as much. Meanwhile, many whites joined black comedians like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock in poking fun at Tiger’s attempt to be more than “just black.” This blowback is jarring to read considering how benign, even boring, Woods’s comments feel today. He never said he wasn’t black – quite the contrary, the same Oprah interview featured him talking openly about the racism he faced as a black kid growing up in a predominately white community. And Tiger constantly paid homage to the long list of black professional golfers who had come before him (like Ted Rhodes, Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, or Calvin Peete). He otherwise fully embraced the historical identity of a “famous black athlete” – as did his major sponsor, Nike Inc.
Today, few Americans even bat an eye at Cablinasian. It’s the kind of remark that tends to pass quickly, no matter who says it or how famous they are. But in 1997, the idea that someone could have a say in choosing their own racial identity, or express their multi-racial or multi-ethnic identity as a separate “category,” was simply less acceptable than it is now. “If Tiger Woods said that today, I don’t think he would get the same flak,” sociologist Ann Morning said in 2013. “There has been a sea change in American thinking.”
Of course, historians also know that people end up in textbooks when authors can’t think of better examples. And here, too, the Woods legacy shows promise. The fallout over Cablinasian sparked by far the largest mass discussion of multiracialism in the 1990s. What other individual – be it in sport, entertainment, politics, you name it – will historians turn to for a better example?
Plenty of folks realized this in 1997. Today, most Americans have already forgotten that the 2000 US Census was the first to allow respondents the option of selecting more than one race; before that, the Census (and nearly all other attempts by the federal government to collect racial data) required Americans to select one. In Washington, that debate played out right as Tigermania swept the country. Just days after Woods won the 1997 Masters, members of the US House of Representatives dubbed a proposed measure to add a “multiracial” category to the Census the “Tiger Woods Bill.” Five months later, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued the directive that ultimately changed the way the federal government asks about racial identity, including allowing respondents to mark more than one race on the Census.
No matter what happens on the golf course, the legacy of Tiger Woods is growing because these ideas he casually shared as a young man proved iconic. That means he’s not only part of a post-World War II historical narrative that begins with Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball in 1947 and culminates at the 1997 Masters, but also a future narrative that begins in 1997 and continues to this day, one that includes things like the 2000 Census, or the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Rather than a concluding mention in a paragraph on “desegregating sport in the twentieth century” – listed as an afterthought with the likes of Robinson or Muhammad Ali – Woods may very well show up in a different chapter altogether: one that describes how race in America transitioned at the dawn of the twenty-first century. (Perhaps the textbook might even note that Obama, compared to Woods, elicited far less blowback when referencing his own multiracialism).
So, go easy on the great-grandkids if they recognize Barack Obama and Tiger Woods but stare blankly when you mention names like Jesse Jackson, Michael Jordan, Hank Aaron, Michael Jackson, Al Sharpton, or Denzel Washington. They’re probably still reading their textbooks – assuming those are still around, of course.
Lane Demas is associate professor of history at Central Michigan University.
 “Too Far out of Bounds,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 15, 2001, 94.
 “Ranks of Multiracial Americans Grows,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2013, AA4.