Oct. 18 - The first time Earl Woods prophesied greatness beyond golf for his son, it was easy to dismiss the claim as paternal overreaching. This was before Tiger had proved himself golf’s First Coming, so to assign him a broader messianic role seemed a bit premature, if entirely forgivable coming from a proud father.
WELL, THAT WAS then and this is now, and you have to wonder if blunt-talking Earl wasn’t on to something. Still is, evidently, because he keeps saying it, keeps telling anyone who will listen that the venue in which Tiger will fulfill his highest potential isn’t a golf course but the world at large, where dramas of politics, economics and culture are played out.
That’s something for golf fans to consider as Tiger’s fifth season on the PGA tour draws to its glorious close. The question is not what Woods can do to top his 2000 season, widely hailed as one of the greatest sustained performances in all of sports history, but for how much longer he’ll even care to try.
Certainly there is not much left for him to accomplish in his sport. At the still-tender age of 24, the apple of Earl’s eye has won 24 tournaments, including golf’s four majors, and in each of those grand slam events he has set the scoring record.
Even more remarkable, he has won more than $18 million in prize money, breaking the record for career earnings. Consider: He has won more money in four-plus years of competition than Jack Nicklaus won in 40.
Along the way, he has made the wildly improbable utterly routine. As a TV commentator concluded after watching Tiger take a pitching wedge and blast out of a deep, deep rough, depositing the ball to within three feet of a hole 180 yards away, “He is playing a game I’m not familiar with.”
If his achievements are singular, so is the manner in which they’ve been achieved. Self-possessed without being the least bit self-absorbed, Tiger seems to know instinctively how to take control of his environment, whether a golf course or the set of a television commercial. (Does he not shill products with a pitch as smooth as his golf swing? No wonder Nike is happy to pay him $100 million over the next five years.)
Of course, if Earl is to be believed, all of this — the acclaim, the adoration, the loot — is merely a prelude to something much grander. Exactly what we can’t know, though there are clues. Perhaps the most compelling is found in the career of the last athlete to achieve the level of uber-sport existence that Earl seems to imagine for his son. And, no, it’s not Michael Jordan, the basketball player turned logo, but Muhammad Ali, the boxer turned paragon.
The obvious parallel is athletic, because it’s necessary to go back to Ali to find someone who dominated his sport as thoroughly as Tiger dominates his; and, yes, again, that includes Jordan — and every other athlete, professional or amateur, male or female, who has competed in the intervening years. In his prime, Ali existed in a state of athletic grace not unlike the one that now envelops Tiger.
Just before his exile for refusing to be drafted, Ali fought an accelerated schedule of bouts with the knowledge that they could very well be his last. They were not that, but they were his athletic pinnacle. He was unhittable, moving with a rhythm and surety of step that seemed almost to stupefy his opponents; his own punches he could get off from any position or angle, sending devastating fusillades into the faces of seasoned pugilists who always, at the instant of attack, appeared astonished by their victimization. David Duval displayed much the same confused vulnerability during the last round of this year’s British Open, when Tiger administered golf’s equivalent of a savage beating.
Though Ali’s grievances were specifically those of a Southern black, and his particular response was to adopt a racist faith, his antiheroic appeal cut across all boundaries of race and religion — and those of politics, economics and culture, too.
He was the everyman of protest, the standard bearer for anyone who could not get with “the program,” embraced as closely by antiwar protestors and the merely disaffected — whether personally or socially — as he was by his fellow blacks. And his consistent, adamant message to these idolatrous legions? Conciliation be damned!
By word, deed and even his very blood — rumored to have been seasoned by miscegenation — Ali was an affront to the established order, and the perfect icon for the ’60s. But this state of contrarian grace was purchased at a steep price. Commercially as well as politically anathema, Muhammad Ali did not benefit from $100 million — or even $100 — endorsement deals. It’s one of the reasons he fought well beyond his prime; he may have needed the adulation, as some say, but he also needed the money.
When finally Ali was welcomed back into the national fold — in 1996 when his palsied hand ignited the Olympic flame in Atlanta — he entered as a physically broken man. He had suffered, it seems, the fate of the uncompromising.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine Tiger arriving at a similar place in his life — not because he holds his his principles too lightly, but because of what those principles are. One senses that among his guiding beliefs, peaceful coexistence and reasonable accommodation rank high.
If this intuition about Tiger is true, then he is in step with the current zeitgeist, which is all about diversity and the toning down of cultural and racial difference. A man for this age is not someone who, like the young Ali, knows how to enflame and then settle long-simmering scores, but someone who in his very person and personality embodies the politics of synthesis. Tiger Woods, Asian-African-American, Zen master of a game beloved of rich white men, fits the role to a T.
Outside of his skin, he seems to be not very much about race at all, aware, certainly, but not preoccupied. In his rookie season, with the sporting press intent on drawing him into a racial controversy touched off by Fuzzy Zoeller’s foolishness, Tiger artfully sidestepped the issue. Not yet 21, he was the only adult in sight.
Comfortable and diligent as a role model for young people, he seems to draw no distinctions among the people he helps. This colorblindness is codified in the charter of the Tiger Woods Foundation, which promotes a world in which “people of varying backgrounds, histories, races, languages and ethnicities all can reach their highest potential.”
By word and example, his clarion message is: If you are excellent, nothing else matters. And that takes us back to the central question: At what vocation will Tiger next excel?
The bet here is that Tiger will be mostly done with competitive golf well before he turns 40. He will find time along the way to complete his Stanford education, and he will devote increasing time and attention to his foundation. Seeking an ever-broader forum, he will turn finally, inevitably, to politics.
No one should be surprised if Tiger is found standing behind a podium at the presidential debates of 2012. He will only just have crossed the constitutional age threshold of 35, but, if the current political season is any indication, he again will be the only adult in sight.
Politics will be a bloodsport closer in kind to what Ali used to practice than to the niceties a golfer observes over 18 holes, but no matter. If Tiger plays the game — and it seems that he must — he will win the game.
A final prediction: He will play the game as a Republican.
Philipp Harper is a free-lance writer in Seattle. He formerly was Opinions Editor of MSNBC.com.
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