When Tiger Woods won the Masters last weekend, it was a moment many thought would never happen again.
Woods has been one of the most important figures in modern sports because of the way he rocketed into golf and exemplified excellence. Until the moment he didn’t.
Just because you aren’t a fan of an athlete, doesn’t mean they can’t disappoint you, and Woods’ infidelity on an epic scale was only part of it. Woods’ career paralleled for a time that of Serena and Venus Williams’ in tennis. In the years since, more young women of color picked up a racket. If you look across the WTA landscape you can see the full-grown results of a real push to open tennis up to young players of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. American tennis now has players like Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend in the top 100 in the world.
When we look at golf, the sport hasn’t done as well with that. The Masters was entrenched in an anti-inclusivity stance until 2012 when two women, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, were named members. Eight months ago, the PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua said diversity was the top issue facing the sport.
More than tennis, the other sport that thrives in country clubs across the US, golf has been an exclusive one. To address the inequity, the PGA, LPGA and other groups started the First Tee program to create a path for kids who didn’t historically have access to the sport, but the results haven’t been as robust as hoped.
How much of that could Tiger Woods personally change?
It’s hard to know. Woods was an icon, but before he could leverage his platform as Venus did, for example by advocating for equal pay at Wimbledon in a 2006 opinion piece in the Times of London, Woods was absorbed by the chaos he’d created in his private life.
His reputation was in tatters, his ability to force change became just another in a cascade of what ifs. If he could have made more of a difference, he robbed himself of the best years to do it. The biggest casualty of his 11-year title drought might not have been the majors and titles, but also the moral authority to advocate for inclusion in golf.
There was a time when I didn’t care if Tiger Woods ever won another round of golf.
But the 11 years since Woods won his last major title haven’t just weathered the former champion, we as a culture have examined what we are really looking for in our heroes. Woods didn’t cheat at his sport or physically harm anyone. After years watching violent players recycled by leagues, time has changed my perception of what is unforgivable.
Woods’ second act has been as challenging as his first seemed easy. He was not winning. He required four back surgeries, and there were moments he fell to the green in pain after a shot.
So last weekend, when Woods finally earned another green jacket, it was hard not to be moved. When he walked to hug his children Sam and Charlie, who had not known their father as the active champion so many remember him for, the joy was evident on all of their faces.
Turns out, it’s not too late for Tiger. And, hopefully, it’s not too late for golf. Woods’ second act can mean a lot of things, and making the sport a more inclusive place could be one of them. Sometimes people can disappoint you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t respect the comeback.
Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.
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