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The Importance of Tiger Woods

Memo To: Website fans, browsers, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A CHAMPION black golfer?

This Memo on the Margin first appeared on April 14, 1997, the day after Tiger won the 1997 Masters. When he won his second green jacket yesterday, giving him all major titles at the same time, I thought it appropriate to run it again.

 

Tiger Woods and an End to Racism

Fifty years ago in late April, ten-year-old Jude walked to Ebbets Field with his 9-year-old brother Terry to watch the first Saturday game the Brooklyn Dodgers played with Jackie Robinson in the lineup. I’m sure I didn’t think much about the history that was being made at the time. I seemed to recall thinking that it would be an advantage to the Dodgers to be the only team letting a Negro play on the team. My Uncle Jack, my father’s older brother, who owned his own coal truck in Minersville, Pa., was visiting that week, and I vividly recall him making fun of Jackie Robinson, telling me he wouldn’t make it, that "niggers were only good for a pick and a shovel." I was shocked at his words and have never forgotten the circumstance in which he uttered them.

In winning the Master’s yesterday in his first attempt as a professional, Tiger Woods took us a step closer to ending the racist idea as it has existed throughout the history of civilization. This is not because a black man was never supposed to win so persuasively at the most intellectual of all athletic endeavors -- the game of golf -- but because of the way Tiger learned the game. Even fifty years ago, my Uncle Jack would needle me about Jackie Robinson playing baseball, but he wouldn’t say a word about the fact that black men did play professional football. White men have for centuries accepted the idea that black men could be champions in physical activities that did not involve much intellectual brainpower. They could box and wrestle, run and jump, block and tackle. But baseball involved subtle intellectual calculations connected to the physical actions involved.

Keeping pro baseball closed to blacks was not only a social distinction, it also was part of the prevailing conventional wisdom that blacks were intellectually unsuited for this kind of activity. Racism has always involved a genetic distinction among classes of people, even before science developed the concept of genetics. Adolf Hitler’s idea of a master race was built around a eugenic combination of physical and intellectual racial attributes.

Men have always believed some classes of men have been intrinsically superior to others. Even those who have been told they are inferior have frequently accepted their fate. Tiger Woods comes as close as any human being in all of history to ending racism in that sense. The credit really goes not to Tiger, but to his father, Earl Woods, who taught Tiger the game when he was literally a baby. Earl was a club pro and there have been many club pros who taught their kids the game at an early age. But Earl went further. He set up a practice range in his garage, and as soon as Tiger was able to sit in a high chair, he sat him there to watch Daddy swing. By the time Tiger was eight months old, he could sit and watch for two hours without complaint. When he was nine months, old enough to stand, Earl let him take a whack, and insists that Tiger’s swing was a replica of his own. The picture of the swing had burned itself into Tiger’s infant brain.

This is important far beyond the sports pages. It tells us that Tiger didn’t show up as a genetic "sport," a statistical "out-lyer" that we should consider as being a freak of nature, a million-to-one shot. It tells us there is something to the argument that the human brain, at the moment life begins, is not stuck with a preordained potential that is related to race, in particular to skin pigmentation. It was only a few years ago that my Uncle Jack believed a black man was only good for a pick and a shovel. Jackie Robinson was bound to fail at baseball, a game high on the intellectual scale. The only athletic endeavors higher on the intellectual scale were limited to the football quarterback and the professional golfer.

The way Tiger learned the game of golf from his high chair is not something widely known, but it will be. It will lead to revolutions in the way we think about all children, black, brown and white, and their potential if only they can develop from their earliest days within a family that is committed to the potential of their children.