ESPN’s Tiger Woods documentary will explore golf star’s racial journey from childhood until now

ESPN's Tiger Woods documentary will explore golf star's racial journey from childhood until now

There’s a scene early in the upcoming ESPN documentary “Tiger Woods: America’s Son” that’s striking because it’s something we haven’t seen Woods do seemingly in years — and that’s talk bluntly, and fearlessly, about race.

An interviewer asks a then 14-year-old Woods if he’s ever experienced racism at the different country clubs where he’s played. Woods, with a single brace covering the top part of his wide-eyed smile, answers without hesitation.

“Oh, every day,” Woods responded. “Not every day, but every time I go to a major country club, always feel it, can always sense it. People always staring at you. ‘What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.'”.

Woods then says he wanted to win the Masters because of how, “Blacks have been treated there. (People say) they shouldn’t be there. If I win that tournament it might be really big for us.”.

“Since I’m Black, I might be even bigger than Jack Nicklaus,” Woods adds. “I might be even bigger than him. To the Blacks. I might be a Michael Jordan in basketball. Something like that.”.

Woods said that in 1990; he was Golfstradamus.

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It’s possible you’ve seen the clips of Woods before, but they hit differently now amid a massively divided nation and knowing Woods has morphed from someone who spoke about race freely to a man who does so reluctantly.

The documentary, done in partnership with The Undefeated, an ESPN asset that explores the intersections of sports, race and culture, doesn’t necessarily shed any new light on Woods. It airs at 7 p.M. ET on Nov. 29 on ESPN.

But it’s still a wonderfully told, at times emotional, and always extremely frank story about the powerful uniqueness of Woods. It examines how he’s both viewed himself over the decades and how Blacks have viewed Woods as both an inspirational, almost God-like figure while simultaneously questioning his authenticity.

It’s required viewing for anyone who wants to understand not just Woods, but the history of golf and race.

The documentary, like its subject matter, is layered. It gives multi-faceted views on Woods, with interviewees both critical and supportive of him.

What’s most stunning are the contrasting versions of Woods. In 1992, at the age of 16, Woods spoke of how he could be one of the leading figures in the Black community.

“(Black golfers) Jim Thorpe, Calvin Peete, they’re all past their prime,” Woods said, “and then there’s me, but there’s nobody in between. So I guess you could say I am the so-called next leader for the Black race. That is kinda sad to say that though because there’s nobody out there. It’s kinda hard to believe.”.

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It’s difficult to reconcile that Woods with the one who released a bland statement following the death of George Floyd.

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page says in the documentary that Woods’ statement sounded “…A lot more neutral than I would have sounded. It was like he was bending over backwards to be neutral. You can’t be neutral on something like this. You have to be on one side or the other. And at this point people are turning to Tiger Woods as an opinion leader. I thought he let people down.”.

Some of the best parts of the documentary are the reactions of Black golfers and caddies who watched Woods grow up, how he positively impacted them, and still does.

One such conversation happens with a group of golfers called the Pittsburgh Duffers, which started in 1952, and was formed because Blacks were prohibited from playing on white courses in the area. A member describes how he wasn’t allowed to play golf at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania, and instead played on the course directly next to it, where a fence separated the two courses. To them, the fence, which they could see through, stood as a metaphor.

The line of demarcation for Woods embracing his Blackness and then entering into more, well, complex territory was when he went on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1997 and called himself “Cablinasian.” The word represented his multi-racial background (Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian).

To some Black golfers, and others, Woods calling himself that represented Woods distancing himself from his Black heritage.

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“What a lot of people saw or heard was, ‘Here’s one more effort by a young black man to avoid being Black,” says Page in the documentary. “Or avoid being called Black. Or avoid being associated with it.”.

This is one of the most intelligent parts of the documentary. Not only does it refuse to avoid the racial complexities of Woods, it deconstructs them, embraces them, and gleefully juggles them all simultaneously and with skill.

It does, in other words, what society sometimes fails to.