We almost lost Tiger Woods in a gruesome car accident Tuesday along a Southern California highway during these final days of the month when America celebrates Black history. With apologies to late poet T. S. Eliot, such a horror would have made February the cruelest month, instead of April.
Just four weeks ago, Hank Aaron died at 86. Not only was he a baseball legend, but through his ability as an African American to survive death threats and hate mail while surpassing the immortal record of a White hero (Babe Ruth and his 714 career home runs), Aaron also became a civil rights icon.
Losing Aaron was sorrowful. The close call for Woods — a living embodiment of recent Black history and excellence — and the devastating knowledge that it could have been worse is hard to contemplate, especially just a month after we commemorated the death of NBA star Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles.
The 45-year-old Woods suffered massive leg injuries that required emergency surgery. He faces, at best, a long road to recovery. But he lives, and we rejoice, especially African Americans — since many of them hug Eldrick Tont Woods tighter than anybody — and always will.
That’s despite everything.
By “everything,” I mean Wood’s childhood spent — and adult tendency to remain — in a mostly White world, and his refusal to move beyond a few centimeters in the direction of embracing the Black Lives Matter movement. Woods did release a statement last summer after George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis cop. Even so, the carefully crafted words (saying his heart went out to “all of us who are hurting right now”) from the winner of a record-tying 82 PGA Tour victories came much later than those of other prominent athletes, which wasn’t surprising to me.
He’s the anti-LeBron James regarding social issues. While James makes his excellence a platform for political reform, Woods doesn’t.
Nevertheless, Tiger Woods is ours. For many African-Americans, he’ll remain an icon forever, no matter his personal struggles or political choices.
Woods’s eternal connection with the Black community began on what I’ll call Emancipation Sunday for golf in April 1997. He likely didn’t mean it this way, but it all started for me (and was likely not lost on many) when he wore his red Nike shirt — as if to place racism in his sport on high alert.
Then, with Blacks, who listened on the radio to Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947, joining their descendants in front of TV sets everywhere, Woods swung his clubs to perfection. It was just two days shy of the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s deed.
Woods pumped his fist in defiance.
He smoked his White competitors by 12 strokes to win the first of his five Masters tournaments at the same Augusta National Golf Club that didn’t allow Blacks to join its ranks until barely seven years before that.
Several days later, Oprah Winfrey called me out of nowhere. She asked if I would appear on her show to discuss all things Woods and to explain the sports column I wrote for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that day. In the piece, I argued that multiple races, religions and creeds wished to claim this younger version of golf’s all-time greatest star as their own. I declared: “Tiger, you’re Black, period.”
I had been inspired to write those words after watching Oprah’s show the previous day featuring Woods and his father, the late Earl Woods, who was his son’s best friend and lifelong golf coach.
Earl Woods also was his son’s image maker. Beyond golf, he envisioned Tiger as a transcendent figure for the planet, which is perhaps one reason why Earl smiled and nodded when his superstar son told Oprah it bothered him when folks called him “African American” since he had a Black father, an Asian mother named Kultida and a touch of Indian ancestry.
Woods told Oprah he invented the word “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, Black, American Indian and Asian) to describe himself when he was asked as a youth about his race.
But Woods is Black, and I said so on Oprah’s show, because of what he has meant to the Black community and how his career has affected the struggle against racism in America. This identity goes beyond the “one-drop rule” principle that dominated the racial dynamics in many states in the early 20th century. That norm said any person with a drop of Black blood was considered Black.
All I know is, a slew of African Americans grabbed golf clubs since they saw somebody who looked like them prospering at chipping, driving and putting.
No doubt, Woods triggered a golf explosion. “The US saw a jump in rounds played of 63 million in 1997 over 1996,” said a story on USA today last December, citing information from Golf Datatech.
It was the “Tiger Effect,” and in my personal and professional experience, it was most pronounced among Black Americans.
During the 1950s, my dad was among the first Black golfers in Indiana, where I was born and raised in South Bend. So, the sport was already in our blood. Still, once Tiger Woods came on the scene, any family phone conversation for me (and for almost anybody else in Black America) ended with a shout from Mom or Dad of “Tiger’s playing!” followed by an abrupt click.
Now Tiger Woods is hurting. He’s lying in a bed at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center after being pried out of his vehicle through the driver’s side window by paramedics. And the bigger news is that he survived.
With Woods’ five earlier back surgeries and these new injuries that won’t vanish soon, he might never bring his major tournament victories (he has 15 already) closer to surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ record 18.
He might never play competitive golf again.
But he’s still ours.