A one-man rainbow coalition
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

"What are you?"

A rude question, asked -- a lot -- of people like Tiger Woods, whose racial or ethnic identity is ambiguous, not clear-cut enough at face value, or by pigmentation.

Tiger Woods
When he isn't wearing a green jacket, Tiger sports a coat of many colors.
It's like people need to know where you stand ... on yourself. But mostly where you stand in relation to them. People ask not for clarity but for their own comfort. Get close enough to Tiger to ask, "What are you?" and he'll likely ignore you. He's good at that. But his answer could be, "Everything."

Or a derivative, like, "Cablinasian," a word he invented to answer Oprah Winfrey, when the world's finest confidant, hand-patter and, OK, snoop, asked him, "So ... Tiger ..."

What do you consider yourself to be?

He made himself clear five years ago on "Oprah," and has pretty much left it to the imagination since. Said he wore a coat of many colors. Still does. Whatever one thinks of the word he made up, the Asian part was clearly enunciated.

As has been said, time and again, his mother Kultida is of Thai and Chinese descent. His father, Earl, is kaleidoscopic; African-American, American Indian, Chinese-American, with a strain or two of the adventurous Anglo-American, as well.

After "Oprah," Tiger chose not to speak specifically on the question of "What are you?" "I'm GRREAT!" his game says, in tones befitting another Tiger, Tony, of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and ad copy fame. "I'm GRREAT!"

So who claims Tiger Woods? Who are we in relation to him? This is a better question, maybe even more so with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month up on the calendar.

Tiger's Asian heritage defines him as thoroughly as any other aspect of his makeup, although we tend to throw everyone brown and American with nice lips into the black blender. Tiger doesn't seem to have problems being thrown in there. When he and Earl Woods were insulted, rebuffed and scorned at private golf courses when he was a boy, no one asked what he was then. They assumed they knew; if they saw Earl, they were certain of it. Whatever he was, he wasn't of the required cloth, not in the eye of the beholder.

Tiger's Asiatic roots and temperament helped him endure and overcome the reality of bigotry, if not to understand it. Either way, he didn't have to put up with it long.

It's a new millennium, a new day. Good timing on his part. Wears a Buddha on a gold chain around his neck. When he was a boy, he and his mother took a pilgrimage to Thailand, not only to visit Tiger's maternal relatives but also a Buddhist temple, to see the gentle but rocky firmness of the serene, ascetic monks. It's said one of these Buddhist monks told El Tigre he was "special." And each year on his birthday, Dec. 30, he and Kultida go to a Buddhist temple to reflect, pray and offer the traditional gifts of salt, rice and sugar.

Earl Woods
The country-club set took one look at Earl Woods and assumed Tiger was black.
Has Buddhism helped him keep his calm while competing against the field, while dealing with huge, jiggling galleries, or dealing with being the center of all the unprecedented attention? We don't know.

What we do know is he has performed supernaturally in his unique situation; lesser situations have caused severe acting-out, if not wholesale rebellion, among his athletic peers and elders. There are so many ways to go wrong. But so far he hasn't.

Most people have noticed he cares mostly about winning golf's majors, that the other tournaments mean relatively little to him now. Others beat him out in those, which adds to other Tour players' coffers and reps, but also drives up the drama quotient. He cares about certain tournaments more, almost -- if not quite -- as much as he cares about winning the majors; he cares about winning Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament -- Nicklaus is his golfing achievement model, a reason the majors are a measuring stick in the first place.

Tiger has won Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament three straight times, and counting, going into this week's play.

He admires Arnie, and has won Palmer's Bay Hill scrum three years in a row now. Tiger is always a force, but his focus is otherwise not always as keen at, say, the New Zealand Open, which he played last season, or at a Buick-sponsored tournament, or at other events that are ecstatic and more profitable for having him, whether he wins or not.

Tiger has saved some of his best performances for the Far East, in particular the Johnnie Walker Tournament in his mother's native Thailand. This means something to him.

In 1998, his back-to-the-woodshed year, the year after he won his first Masters and restructured his swing with Butch Harmon, Tiger teed it up in the Johnnie Walker Classic, in Thailand, one of the most prestigious tourneys in the Far East. Perhaps pressing, feeling his way with his new swing and new shot arsenal -- no doubt he wanted to win this tournament for the pride of his mother's family -- he fell eight shots back going into the final round. Not eight shots behind just anybody, but sweet-swinging Ernie Els.

Tiger shot 65 on the final day and won on the second playoff hole. Kultida did something rare -- she hugged a beaming Tiger immediately afterward. She took off her hat before she embraced him, something she had not done in our eyeshot at a tournament stateside. At the time, this seemed to be Tiger's most satisfying pro victory except for his first Masters title the year before, 1997.

***** ***** *****

A shrewd and famously infamous man once said to me, "The secret in America is to be black, without being black."

Tiger Woods
When Tiger journeys to the Pacific Rim, the tournaments mean just a little bit more.
If I understood him correctly, he meant: to understand and relate to the African-American culture, its trends, idioms and totems, to show one is at peace with it, is unprejudiced if not straight-up hip, comfortable, as with one's own self. In that way, Tiger scans "black" in the same way that, say, Hugh Grant's British character in "About A Boy" scans "black." Hip. It's an English film, yet it contains nearly as much African-American trademarking as John Singleton's "Shaft," or Eminem, or Anton Apolo Ohno, or as much as you do, for that matter, in your own way. You speak the language, you feel some of the feeling. Glory Be, the funk's on we.

If we are smart (and we are), we know that this African-Americaness is part of us, just as much as Spanish-named cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are, and the Founding Fathers and Constitutional framers. But at the same time, to be black is also to be avoided, shunned, and this can be inconvenient.

In Tiger's case, his relation to it is also biological, cultural, because of his father, in an immediate sense.

Tiger's Asiatic roots are also undeniable, central to him -- a connection to the Pacific rim is seminal and maternal, thus deeply held. What does this mean to people of Asian and Pacific Island descent, in their reaction to and in their relation with Tiger?

Speaking only from the tip of the iceberg, it's interesting.

And complicated. One middle-aged Japanese-American academic acquaintance told me she'd felt more comfortable working on the Eastern seaboard, New York, though she is a California native. Her parents were held at the Manzanar "relocation camp" during World War II, and she always felt it growing up, being coolly judged, feeling psychologically threatened, admittedly unreasonably, in her later years on the West Coast. She fled the ill feeling.

Another acquaintance, born in mainland China, who now lives and works in the Boston area, allows people to think she is Malaysian, a more ambiguous category, not because of her own feelings, but because she has a teenage son, who broods (just as any good American teenager does) and thinks it is better among his peers to be known as a more encompassing "Malaysian" than pigeon-holed "Chinese."

(What Tiger Woods makes of his own connections, I can't claim to know yet. Haven't faced him. Plan to fill that particular hole on the old résumé by the end of the summer.)

Elin Nordegren
The tabloids claimed that Tiger's decision to date a white woman such as Elin Nordegren angered his mother.
Tiger's galleries and followers make up his Technicolor Dreamcoat. His multicolored jacket's lining is the only color that counts; green. Peter Keating, writing in ESPN the Magazine in July 2000, estimated Tiger Woods would hit $6,190,000,000 in earnings in his career; since then, the PGA Tour signed a lucrative new TV deal -- new revenue streams and partnerships that are not now apparent will be coming along inevitably -- and his appearance fees for non-PGA events, in some cases, have doubled. Now upward of $7 billion would not be much of a stretch for Tiger's estimated career earnings.

That might be one of his contributions in the end -- how and where he uses his clout, influence and wealth. His greatest contribution might be to insist that he, like everyone else, is actually beyond our pathetic desire to categorize, and far beyond our inclination to limit ourselves with the questions like, "What are you?" "I am most #@$&! excellent," is the Answer in Tiger's play.

Asian-Americans feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, even of authorship of Tiger Woods at work. Everyone does. Bony whicker-bill ranchers out in West Texas eating chicken-fried steak do, too. People are drawn like moths to the flame of great, surpassing skill.

There's also something I like to call Personal Transposition To The Distant Subject. An observer is always drawn closer to a player or a participant by an ability to relate to a person's background -- to see a vestige of himself in that performer.

Tiger's background is so diverse, his ways so winning, he cries out to be claimed; nearly everybody finds a wellspring in him. You almost have to try not to. Everyone wants to be talented, and smart, and well-spoken, kindly spoken, softly spoken even, and at the same time not let anyone tread on him -- or more accurately, on his sublime game, which he considers beyond reproach, for the most past, other than by the top-flight pros, or his old instructors, or Harmon, or particularly Earl.

All the post-match interviewers he knows at face value and engages with -- the Roger Maltbies, the Justin Tutts, the Scott Van Pelts, the Jimmy Robertses, et. al. Tiger indulges them; their networks help pay the freight. He even responded to Mr. Tutt with a quiet, polite "Excuse me?" when Tutt's British accent threw him during an interview after the first round of the Deutsche Bank-SAP.

What Tutt had asked was, "Have a stab at a final total?" -- his way of asking Tiger to project a winning score. Once clear, Tiger answered. His conduct is, for the most part, impeccable. His taste for risqué jokes is reserved for his intimates, ever since Esquire's Charles Pierce taught him early that everything he says in public is fair game. So he learns. The credit for this goes to Tida, Earl, a Buddhist monk. Doesn't mean they will be the only ones to feel pride, but they are likely emblematic of the people who feel the most pride. What's not to be proud of? Tiger Woods dresses very well, yet real comfortably; he has style, grace, That Thing, je ne sais quoi. You feel a personal accountability and sensitivity in him.

And God, can he play his #&@%$ ball!

Everyone experiences Personal Transposition to the Distant Subject with Tiger. He's one of a kind that way, too.

If a German youth can stand in the background of a shot at the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open and smile so beatifically, just because he is in the shot with Tiger; if the billowing galleries of all colors, hues and continental origin fill U.S. courses whenever he tees up; if we can all laugh when the naïve waitress in the front seat of the vehicle in his Buick commercial asks, "Are you Tiger Woods?" and he shakes his head, lids his eyes and says, "No ..." then it stands to reason that Asian and Pacific Islanders who do or don't turn out for the tournaments are positively affected.

More to the point, this once-cloistered game, this once nearly whites-only sport, can be so dramatically and positively affected by a person who looks like them.

They're part of the universal compelling charm of El Tigre.

Seen in different lights, Tiger looks Asian, and African-American, or like an old Benetton ad, or as just plain good American stock. It all depends on what one is looking for. Tiger is not just ambassador for golf to the world -- including a large part of the world that before him was innocent of golf -- he is also the ambassador to golf from the world, including and sometimes especially the Pacific Rim.

***** ***** *****

In the latest version of Tiger's EA Sports video game, "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002," Tiger and the EA Sports company's engineers have created a world that includes Pebble Beach ("the perfect meeting of land and sea") Royal Birkdale (flat greens!), and TPC at Sawgrass; it features a musical track in parts Nelly, popular producer and hip-hop Af-Am rap artist out of St. Louis, to something that sounds suspiciously like the muted horn of Miles Davis. Set-up calls are by Bill McAtee, funny and funereal descriptions and repartee by wisecracking David Feherty. A roster of players of both genders and all past continental origins is available. Three of the seven fictional players in the game are Asian or Pacific Islander. In Tiger's words, they "look like America."

His good friend and former fellow Stanford golfer Notah Begay III is one of the players you must beat to win the "Tiger Challenge," and get full Tiger powers, including gold-shafted clubs, in "Tiger 2002." Notah's tough as nails on Pete Dye's TPC course. I'd defy anyone to beat him the first time out there during the "Tiger Challenge." Notah is, of course, American Indian. Other players in the video game include touring Anglo-American pros such as Justin Leonard, Jim Furyk, Brad Faxon and Lee Janzen. All hard to beat.

Also represented: the Aussie, Stuart Appleby, and the Scot, Colin Montgomerie; Fiji's Vijay Singh, and the Swede, Jesper Parnevik. All tough, but Mr. Parnevik is particularly tough, and the final pro to beat before you get to Super Tiger Woods. (Wonder if Tiger's homage to JP has to do with him setting up Tiger with his new flame, Ms. EN Sports?)

***** ***** *****

Speaking of old flames, Tiger gets held to a hot one over his consorts. He once said to ESPN's Stuart Scott, in equal parts jest, ruefulness and agitation, that he led the PGA Tour not only in GIR but NEC --" 'National Enquirer' covers." (Another way to look at it: When life gets to where your headache is the National Enquirer playing their version of hardball with you, life is good otherwise.) And that was long before another fusillade from the tabs this spring. One quoted his mother (second source, once-warmed-over, in keeping with the tabs' habit) as rambling on at distressing length, saying Tiger was upsetting her by dating young women, letting her down somehow -- with the implication these were not Thai women, or, that is to say, like her. Tiger seems to like 'em leggy and blonde, and as we can all testify, we all get to like whatever it is we like.

Tiger Woods
Tiger could make more than
$7 billion before his career ends -- which would enable him to influence the world just about any way he chooses.
We also often tend to like what the predominant culture we work in seems to like. Many former white NBA ballers such as Germany's Detlef Schrempf and Kentuckian Rex Chapman had black wives, one assumes because there were many black women around the NBA and hoop, and the widest choice of the most nubile women was there (although that doesn't account for Boris Becker, who had an African-American-German wife). If they caught gossip and grief, it wasn't out there as much in the world to notice. Tiger is on the PGA and European Tour, an exceedingly blonde world as far as wives are concerned; it'd be a miracle if he didn't date white women, purely by osmosis. Thai women are at a premium, no matter what the venue in golf. Just to find one is much rarer, let alone one who looks like a lingerie model.

There is a spoken, grumpy feeling among many African-American women that Tiger certainly becomes black when he chooses to date blondes, though they aren't so specific. "He's with a white woman, ain't he?" is how they often put it, in their own brusque way asking, "What are you?" basically asking, or begging, "Why not date somebody like me, who needs it? I'll feel better about myself." It has been explored in movies such as Thomas Carter's "Save the Last Dance." But no character in fiction or fact has fleshed it out in understandable form, for me, anyway.

"Tiger is like ... a chameleon," says Andrea Wyatt, a fitness instructor/sports medicine consultant at RDV Sportsplex in Orlando, Fla., and a young African-American woman. "He's many things to all people -- including us. But it isn't fair for people to think they know best what he should like."

***** ***** *****

In mid-June, the day after the U.S. Open, Tiger will take another bite out of life, this time at his home base in Orlando, where he is host of a golf clinic at Lake Buena Vista. Not just any clinic. Fifteen-hundred underprivileged kids are invited; 75 of them will get up close and personal instruction from El Tigre, golf's Great Man.

The braintrust of the Tiger Woods Foundation, including Dennis Burns, director of junior golf, has decided that this calendar year, instead of trying to run the important clinics in several different cities (Tiger did a whirlwind, four-city "tour" of one-day events last year), El Tigre and his partners will fly 60 lucky kids in for three days they'll always remember -- maybe for as long as Tiger has remembered his trips to Thailand, where he, too, was told he was special. What we humans believe we are, we are likely to become. We have more power over our mental and physical destinies than we can presently know. This intriguing notion, and event, comes the day after the U.S. Open is completed, barring a playoff.

Disney, Coke and the Tiger Foundation will foot the bill.

  Tiger doesn't make a deal out of being black, in terms of taking on causes of others who often also have their own agendas -- in his world, that part, the blackness, is self-evident, to a degree irrelevant. As is the Asian part. He knows these are the other worlds he can comfortably move through -- as can we all. 

The incoming youths will spend time with Woods on the driving ranges, putting greens and Disney courses; they'll stay at the Disney facilities and, of course, hang out at the theme park, aching to bust a move on all the theme-park rides, and pig out in Carb City.

Disney head golf pro Kevin Weickel told Steve Elling of The Orlando Sentinel, "There's probably only one athlete in the world who could pull something like this together," not realizing he might as well be talking about the disparate peoples of the world, as well as a four-day charity event.

It would be unlike Tiger to keep a head count of the 1,500 or so Floridian youth coming to seize the day -- "Crowd check ... let's see ... 375 African-Americans, 208 Puerto Ricans, 105 Mexican-Americans, 102 Irish-Americans, 101 Italian-Americans, 95 Chinese-Americans, 75 Korean-Americans, 58 Japanese-Americans, 37 Filipino-Americans, 25 ..."

That's not his m.o. Like Oprah, he doesn't make a deal out of being black, in terms of taking on causes of others who often also have their own agendas -- in his world, that part, the blackness, is self-evident, to a degree irrelevant. As is the Asian part. He knows these are the other worlds he can comfortably move through -- as can we all.

Through emissaries, by his actions, in honor of his father's and mother's experience as much as his own, he tries to ensure an inclusive future. He wants to see this once-niche sport he vaulted up from its comfortable hammock to world pre-eminence as spectator sport account for, if not all of the peoples of the planet, then for more by far than it ever had before. This effort is more than most of the few Great Men of golf have been able or even inclined to do, in the past.

It is a quiet thing he does. He doesn't trumpet it, or blow his own horn -- but when you speak to him about golf, or watch him work, he doesn't have to blow his own horn. If you are a player yourself, then he just looks at you. And you know. And you know that he knows. It's Nicklausian. Yet another "race" of Tiger's. A "race" of only two men.

What about the "What are you?" questions, and answer?

Tiger's circumspection and growing understanding of the immutability of action once performed is worthy of Shao-lin, Shinto or Buddhist temple, any great Asiatic mysticism.

His current chosen action is to interact with children, not to answer the more complicated questions of tricky adults.

His foundation selected organizations from five cities, including the Orlando Minority Youth Golf Association, to send 15 kids to participate -- 75 kids who get a chance to have their swings touched and built up by El Tigre himself.

Think they won't in part live for golf from now on? A big part of them will. Will they be better for it? Aside from a few balls lost to watery graves, a few bent clubs for the more emotional, a few bad backs, a few regrets for those who won't be able to pursue the game, sure they will.

Golf's a great game. And Buddha, Bruce Lee, the Pied Piper, Johnny Appleseed, John Lennon, George Clinton and Michael Jordan have got nothing on Tiger Woods.

Tigre's planting golf in our souls -- the Souls of All Folk.

Tiger Woods. El Tigre. Typhoon Eldrick. The Souls of All Folks. How many more names can we give Tiger Woods?

How many more identities can he attain?

"He's a chameleon ..."

It's infinite. It's like asking how many American English language words can you make out of 26 Arabic characters.

Tiger's Orlando golf clinic for underprivileged children will not be open to the general public -- else there would be a stampede of California Gold Rush proportions -- but it will be open to central Florida youth organizations dedicated to serving underprivileged kids. They'll be picked to attend the exhibition June 18. Fifteen hundred youthful spectators watching Tiger consult with their peers will dig it. If they don't ... well it's hard to conceive that they wouldn't.

Tiger will dig it, too.

So then, What is he?

Unforgettable, pretty much. Believe it.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



Ralph Wiley Archive

Wiley: The seven voyages of Kobe

Wiley: Doin' it the hard way in Philly

Wiley: Why West went south

Wiley: How to fix the Knix -- and quix

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index