Don't expect Tiger to tee off on issues outside fairways

April 09, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

AUGUSTA, Ga. - At about the time that the woman who wants Augusta National to rescind its men-only membership policy was being denied a protest permit yesterday, the two-time defending champion made the Masters scene.

As high-profile players who have both used symbolism to wage their separate battles, Tiger Woods and Martha Burk would seem to have a lot in common.

But here is where we are wrong to expect Woods to link his presence and power to the valid issue Burk advances.

Woods wants to win this Masters on the long, unrelenting fairways and soggy (yet still speedy) greens of Augusta National. Going for his third consecutive green jacket, he is on the doorstep of history. Apparently, his conscience is not at all bothered that this PGA-sanctioned major golf championship is contested in a place that so staunchly excludes women.

Burk, meanwhile, wants to finish what she started last year when she appealed to Augusta president Hootie Johnson to do the right thing. Private clubs have legal rights, but hers is a bid to show how symbols of corporate power and influence will no longer be tolerated for their exclusionary policies.

Woods would hardly be the blood-cold champion if he were the sort to accept challenges to withdraw from majors in protest - especially a protest that is more symbolic than practical. Woods is far more Michael Jordan than Muhammad Ali or Arthur Ashe in the risks he'll take outside the ropes. He'd rather guys like Ernie Els speak their mind while he conserves his concentration.

If we expect something bigger from Woods besides golf skill and championship prowess beyond compare, it's because Woods told us to look at him and expect something bigger.

Or maybe that was Phil Knight.

Upon Woods' official arrival yesterday at this very different kind of Masters, it's important to sift back through all those Nike ad campaigns featuring the world's greatest golfer. In 1996, the year Woods turned professional, his arrival on golf's money-making scene was marked by this no-holds-barred, coming-out message:

"There are still courses in the United States I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin. I've heard I'm not ready for you. Are you ready for me?"

Were we ready for Tiger? We were more than ready, especially if he could begin to remake the golf world in his image. And what an image.

With that pithy marketing slogan aimed directly at the golf establishment's stereotypical injustices, the thick bedrock of white, male golfdom was shaken and stirred, just like one of those male-only clubhouse martinis.

Tiger was everything. Thai, African-American, Chinese, Native American, Caucasian. He was all things to all people, especially as he tore the roof off that famous American shorthand racial term, "black." Nothing is quite that simple.

At the dawning of his career, he made you see all the colors, all the possibilities, all the doors that still needed to be flung open, from public golf courses in America's cities to those final bastions of white, corporate America - like private golf clubs, like Augusta. No one denied that these places still needed serious fumigation, all those years after Shoal Creek and Lee Elder.

Now, the idealism of Woods' coming-out message is being tested for signs of wear and tear, or worse, disingenuousness.

When asked in '96 to expand upon his "Are you ready for me?" message, Woods said he wanted to shed light on the practice of certain clubs to deny membership and playing rights to minorities, Jews and women. He said he viewed himself as a minority who had a chance to make an impact.

Yesterday, Woods flatly responded to a question about whether he was as passionate about those issues now as he was back then.

"Yes, I am," he said.

Clearly, he is tired of the issue. He is not enamored with anyone who wants to make him address it. There is a war in Iraq. That is preoccupying, he said. There is the chance to make history here. That is his total focus.

"No one's ever done it before," Woods said. "And I've been able to do certain things in golf that no one's ever done before. And if you're ever in that position, you want to take advantage of it, because it doesn't happen all the time. I was in a position to win the Juniors, to win the Amateurs and now, hopefully, I can win three straight Masters."

What's ironic is the minority that once said his stature could help him make an impact is now so engrossed in that very career that he can't use a valid platform to make good on his initial promise.

Apparently, in Tiger's world, you can be a symbol one year, riding the wave of liberal guilt to make the point that golf needs to integrate and move boldly into the new millennium. Then, later, this same agent of change can give off the vibe that now is not a good time to be distracted by those very issues.

It is, of course, Woods' right to act this way.

If there are people out there who wouldn't want to see him win this week and make golf history, let's hope it's fewer than the 200 protestors Martha Burk can't get a permit for outside the main gates of Augusta.

We are, indeed, ready for Tiger. This is his week, ahead of Martha, ahead of Hootie. History calls him, but not outside the ropes.

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