Master stroke for diversity Tiger Woods: Record-shattering performance sinks old ideas about golf and America.

April 15, 1997

IN FOUR GLORIOUS days, Tiger Woods forever changed the face of golf. Exclusive country clubs and white-dominated PGA tournaments had stigmatized golf as a sport that minorities had no reason to embrace. Golf was much like tennis a generation ago, before young Arthur Ashe stunned the world with his Wimbledon victory.

Plenty of African-Americans swing tennis raquets now and, no doubt, people of African and Asian descent will find golf less restrictive because of this 21-year-old phenom who embodies American multiculturalism.

How appropriate that Mr. Woods' record-setting feat came just before today's 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's major league debut. But the golfer's reception was far different from the scorn and taunts that greeted Robinson in ballparks. As Mr. Woods blistered the Augusta National course that transforms mortals into either legends or goats, the predominantly white crowd hailed him as a hero.

To be sure, the playing field of race relations remains unbalanced in golf. The Augusta National Golf Club did not have an African-American member until 1990 and the Master's tournament did not field its first African-American golfer, Lee Elder, until 1975. Each ovation for Mr. Woods seemed to strike a blow against the last remnants of the fallacy that diversity destroys sports. Indeed, diversity enriches.

Mr. Woods went into the Master's tournament with unprecedented hype -- and unprecedented pressure. The winner of three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles and two of his first seven PGA Tour events as a pro, he became Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year." He handled himself with aplomb on and off the course. But one question remained: Would he measure up in the truest rite of golf passage? His reply was more convincing than any Super Bowl blowout. Unlike most Super Bowls, he outdid the hype.

Fifty years from now, we may fully comprehend what Tiger Woods meant for golf and America. For now, we can celebrate the victory he shares with the likes of Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Lee Elder.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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