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Tiger Woods gives us grace-filled moment


It was a graced and hopeful moment. Tiger Woods, son of an African-American father and a Thai mother, sized up a four-foot putt on the 18th hole on the final day at Augusta National. One last stroke and the unflappable 21-year-old would win the Masters. And not just win the Masters but blaze it in 270 strokes -- better than any other golfer in the tournament's history.

Two seconds later, Wood's calm demeanor exploded with a fist in the air as his golf ball disappeared into the cup. He then walked to his parents and bearhugged his father and lifelong coach, Earl, before millions on national television.

Who among us had dry eyes?

History was being written, but what was its meaning?

I don't play golf. Shot a few holes in my early teens, then parted ways with the greens. But we all golfed with Woods at Augusta. He touched us, and deep down we dared to believe he was making a difference, would make a difference. Could another racial divide be disappearing?

Somehow Woods at Augusta seemed to represent a much needed social victory in the long struggle against racism in America.

To understand the dimensions of that victory it is necessary to consider the exclusiveness of the Augusta National tournament, long run by a small group of seemingly closed-minded men. It was not until 1991, for example, that the country club accepted a black member -- and then under pressure of being taken off the Professional Golf Association circuit.

Furthermore, Woods' triumph came 50 years almost to the day after Jackie Robinson became the first black person to don a major league baseball uniform. Sports in America turned a corner that day. It turned another as Woods accepted his green jacket. Understanding the meaning of the moment, Woods volunteered that he would never have golfed at Augusta were it not for other black golfers who preceded him, integrating the Masters, including Lee Elder, who in 1975 was the first black person to qualify for the tournament.

Whether history will eventually place Woods alongside Robinson, who, especially early on, suffered great abuse as a Brooklyn Dodger, will depend in part on how the golfer responds to the considerable scrutiny he will now receive.

It has been written that golf is more about where you live than what color you are. I think it is about both. The two are intertwined in America.

For better and worse, sport says a lot about us. Sometimes more than we like. It can reveal character and, at times, it can underscore conditions in the wider society. At its best, it crosses class, income, gender and racial lines, uniting and lifting the human spirit. At its worst, it antagonizes and creates divisions. More often than not, it simply reflects what is. In the case of golf, it may be reminding us how the human spirit can triumph, even as it reminds us that many are slow to turn from racial prejudice.

The Masters, then, was not only about a remarkable young golfer; it was also about our country's demoralizing distribution of wealth and its segregated neighborhoods.

Watching Woods' victory, while hearing again of Robinson's feats as they were recalled at Shea Stadium, I felt both frustrated and hopeful. Frustrated that we have done so little to break down racial barriers; hopeful that we have not given up the fight.

When Acting Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced the retirement of Robinson's number -- 42 -- throughout baseball, I wanted to believe baseball was actually making a transcendent statement that went beyond public relations. Could it be that baseball owners were really pledging themselves to color-blind corporate management? And if so, could that spirit spread throughout the boardrooms of the land?

Maybe, just maybe. I found myself wondering if there is now enough reason, enough awareness, enough good will for us, as a nation, to turn from racism in our hearts and our communities.

We need to believe. We need to hope.

We won't ever get where we want to go if we don't first lay claim to our ideals, if we don't believe and hope. So, having reaffirmed these ideals, my spirit has unexpectedly been lifted by the play of a dedicated golfer in whose youthful magnificence we have all found common spirit.

It was such a moment to experience.

Tom Fox is NCR editor and publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 1997