THIS DISCOURSE, on the exacting cost of bearing the burden of over-representation, gives one pause when considering Tiger Woods’s position on the PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) tour. When Woods arrived on the scene in the mid- to late 1990s, already a player of whom much was expected after a magnificent college career (Stanford University), he became the first black golfer who promised to win a Major. With his 1997 victory, Woods became the youngest player ever to win a Major, and, into the bargain, he won by twelve strokes, the biggest margin of victory at Augusta.
Woods has, of course, since his first triumph at the Masters tournament at Augusta, Georgia, in 1997, gone on to win fifteen Majors, putting him second only to Jack Nicklaus’s eighteen.
When Woods won at Augusta in 1997, he explicitly thanked Charlie Sifford and Calvin Peete, the pioneering black golfers who had preceded him on the PGA tour. (Woods’s son is named Charlie. Whether or not it is honor of Sifford, I can only speculate. Suffice it to say that in August 2020, Charlie Axel Woods was the runaway at the U.S. Kids golf event in Florida.)1 In 1957 Sifford, in a field that included white golfers, won the Long Beach Open, making him the first black player to win a PGA event. The Detroit native Peete won 12 events on tour, making him the most successful black golfer prior to Woods.
There was little continuity between Sifford and Peete, and maybe even less between Peete and Woods. In fact, Woods’s iconic status in golf may, for reasons that are both rooted in race and professional accomplishment, be utterly distinct from it. Logic—status, accomplishments—determines that. The second most successful golfer in the history of the game is closest only to the player ahead of him, as it should be.
Woods is thus discontinuous, but his singularity derives from an entirely different source.
However, Woods is also discontinuous, at least in relation to, say, LeBron James, more or less a contemporary, in that he is not a black athlete who has a record of speaking out on matters of social justice.
Neither, however, one hastens to add, is Woods quite of a piece with Michael Jordan, who infamously declared himself indentured to capital before all else. A native of Wilmington, North Carolina, Jordan was asked to support a black Democratic senatorial candidate, Harvey Gantt, the mayor of Charlotte. In that 1990 race, Gantt was running against the incumbent senator, Jesse Helms, an avowed segregationist. Jordan would not do so, although he did send the Gantt campaign a check. Jordan’s logic was governed by economic considerations: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” How does one negate such an irrefutable logic? Nike’s main pitch man was true to his pocketbook. (It should be added that this is not an apocryphal story. Jordan admits as much in The Last Dance, a quite remarkable ESPN documentary on his Chicago Bulls. Jordan was politically indicted for his nonendorsement by many in the African American community, a decision that has cast something of a shadow over him ever since.)2
Discontinuity assumes many iterations, all of them, in their own way, different. Thus the curious—and intriguing—case of Eldrick “Tiger” Woods.
Still, as the son of an African American father and a Thai mother (Woods’s preferred self-designation is a neologism, “Cablanasian.” It is composite term, knitted together out of Caucasian, black, Native American, and Asian, so as to give equal credence to his African American, Asian, and indigenous heritage), as a trailblazing black golfer, as a black golfer who has been on the receiving end of racism: one wonders about what kind of loneliness, what mode of apartness, has beset Woods in the course of his career.