It’s hard to feel sorry for Tiger Woods.
At age 26, he has already redefined the way golf is played. In six years on the PGA Tour, he has won eight major tournaments. He is currently $2 million ahead of all other golfers on the tour and makes millions more in endorsements. He is a household name and has done wonders for the popularity of the PGA Tour.
So why is Woods asking for sympathy?
The New York Times published an editorial Monday calling for Woods to sit out the Masters in April. This is just the latest twist in the controversy surrounding Augusta National Golf Club’s policy that excludes women from its membership. The New York Times correctly pointed out that Woods’ absence would send a strong message to Augusta’s crotchety chairman, William “Hootie” Johnson, that discrimination against women is unacceptable.
I would bet, however, that the chances of Woods boycotting the Masters are slim to none. He has made his opinion on this issue very clear: he has none. He has ambiguously said that while he would like to see female members at Augusta, there’s really nothing he can do about it. He just wants to play golf. He does not want organizations to force their causes on him and he does not want to be backed into a corner. He has his “Tiger Woods Foundation” to encourage underprivileged kids to play golf, and that’s enough.
Well Tiger, that’s not enough.
I understand that Woods’ life is under a microscope and that the pressure to be as globally popular as Michael Jordan is omnipresent. But if Woods truly wants to be one of the most influential athletes in history, he always needs to act in the best interests of his sport. And although he claims he is in a no-win situation, he is not.
Allowing women to join Augusta National will only help golf. Woods, therefore, should do everything he can to support changing Augusta’s policy.
With Woods’ arrival on the golfing scene, the sport finally began to relinquish its elitist reputation. Certainly Woods’ own ethnicity has played a role in this, but he has also increased golf’s popularity through his natural talent and endless stream of memorable tournaments.
Woods, however, needs to embrace the fact that he is a pioneer. People see him as an athlete who has broken barriers. He should find it outrageous that Augusta National admitted its first black member just six years before he made his professional debut. As such, he should also find it unbearable that Augusta continues to discriminate.
And make no mistake about it — what Johnson and the other Augusta members are doing is discrimination. Although Johnson sees no connection between racial and gender discrimination, they are analogous. That Augusta still prohibits female members demonstrates its anachronistic ways in the same way that it took nearly 60 years for the club to admit African-American members.
Johnson claims that the club is like a sorority or fraternity and has the right to pick and choose its members. A golf course, however, is not a fraternity. Excluding women from a fraternity is okay because the purpose of the fraternity is to let men bond socially. While a country club has an undeniable social element, people go to a golf course to play golf, and golf is a sport, not an exclusive social club.
Sure, women are allowed to play at Augusta National without restrictions, but only if you are a guest of a member, which automatically makes you subject to your hosts. Female golfers, like all golfers, should be subject to nothing but the course they are tackling.
Woods is in a unique situation to defuse this controversy. A strong statement by him would send shock waves through the golfing community that Johnson and his cohorts would not be able to ignore. Unfortunately, he has only expressed his wish for Johnson and Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, to sit down and make a compromise. There is, however, no compromise on this issue. Either Augusta admits women, or it doesn’t, there can be no halfway.
If Woods continues to take this equivocal stance, he should expect people to keep badgering him to choose a side. Come April, he should also expect this controversy to overshadow his drive for a fourth green jacket. And taking the emphasis off his golf game is exactly what Woods is trying to avoid.