Friday, September 29, 2006

(Masters, 2006)


Now, thankfully, that the Ryder Cup is over, it’s time for the silly season with its giant purses and meaningless titles. Can you spell “Franklin Templeton Shootout?” Hard-core golf fans are already in early Masters countdown. Martha Burke, for all the vilification, did brave work in trying to force a measure of self-reflection and change upon the corporate dons of Augusta. What a dangerously radical, un-American idea she advocated…insisting that women be allowed as club members!

A tradition unlike any other indeed. That tradition once included Jim Crow, and barring all African-Americans but caddies, waiters, and maids. Then-chairman Hootie Johnson and his Augusta politburo manageed to maintain the anachronistıc men-only status quo, at least for now. The club had a big assist from CBS (which essentially ignored the questions Burke raised) and the majority of tour players (none spoke out for women's right to join, and a number appeared to support the male-only policy). Larger principles of equity aside, who'd want to belong to any all-male organization anyway? I went to all-male Haverford College for my first year in college just before it turned co-ed. It was awful.

As has been said a million times, Augusta is a lovely course; and there’s much to admire about the Masters. But at some point, one hopes the club will be forced to address its exclusionary gender policy. You’d think that Bill Gates and the other would-be enlightened corporate oligarchy membership would be embarrassed to belong as it stands. It would also be nice to see Augusta’s Brahmins lose some of their smugness and sense of self-congratulation. As anyone who has read Curt Sampson’s fine The Masters knows, the story of Augusta mirrors the ugliness, prejudice, and discrimination of Jim Crow America (and the subsequent offıcially-sanctioned,The Making of the Masters by David Owen made some useful corrections, and yet too often bordered on apologia for the club founders).

And it would be wrong to imagine that racial hierarchy and politics belong only to the by-gone Masters past. An almost apartheid-feel still prevails in some respects. The well-heeled paying fans -- like Augusta members themselves -- are overwhelmingly white. Those doing the toilet-cleaning, garbage pick-up, minimum wage rent-a-cop gate security are mostly poor and African-American. In their numbered yellow overalls and hats, the trash-pickers have a bit the look of convict highway chain gang work crews of an older South, mostly young black men doing society's dirty work.

At a practice round this spring, I used the bathroom. A middle-aged African American attendant was stationed there to mop the floor and clean up the stray paper towels dropped by white patrons. "No Tipping," a sign posted by the club authorities read. It was in the tradition of founder Clifford Roberts' famous suspicion and penny-pinching with workers (Sampson reports that Roberts required concession workers to cut holes in their overalls to prevent them from filching spare change). Although a complex character who left part of his money to Planned Parenthood, Roberts was a man of his time about race. He sent n- jokes to his friend President Eisenhower and believed mixed marriages posed a major danger to society. When fending off mounting complaints about the Masters never having had an African American competitor, Roberts retorted that aThai player had been invited the year before. "That boy," he said, "was as black as the ace of spades."

Of course, the calculus of race is not simple or uniform nowadays. You'll see some wealthy black corporate fans and the faces of a few brown golfers (Vijay Singh, Michael Campbell, and, of course, Tiger Woods). And discrimination or any brand of outright racism are out of fashion in these ostensibly more tolerant times, presumably even among Augusta fans and members. The look of the Masters nonethless remains powerful testimony to the uncanny capacity of hierarchies of race and money (and gender) to shape society no matter how much we'd like to be rid of them.

In short, the Masters "tradition" intertwines prejudice, power, and exclusion with golf drama and beauty. Ever year, the complexity of that past and present are is wiped away in the muzaky CBS theme music; the fuzzy close-ups of azaleas and dogwoods; and the charmingly grainy black-and-white footage of Palmer and other storied champions. A cornerstone of Masters marketing is nostalgia – history with the pain taken out, as the great S.F. Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once put it.

Early this year, I wrote an op-ed about Tiger, the Masters, and the vanishing African American professional golfer that appeared in the Detroit Free-Press, Raleigh News and Observer, The State, and Toronto Daily Mail. It’s below in slightly modified form. I received a number of angry letters and e-mails. Any probing of the politics of race and history at the Masters -- and anything less than the usual hagiography -- seems to trigger an angry defensiveness. Very visible are the emotions of the culture wars, and, in particular, a familiar right-wing, white male aggrievement about affirmative action, feminist politics, environmentalism, opposition to the war in Iraq, and all the rest of what those of Limbaughesque sensibilities imagine to be the wildly satanic, Western Civilization-destroying agendas of the politically correct.

“People like you keep racism alive and well,” wrote one suburban Detroit reader. Another from South Carolina sent a silly puff piece about Bobby Jones – a fascinating, brave, and, like of all of us, imperfect man -- with the single sentence in bold block letters : “NOW THIS PIECE SHOWS PROPER REVERENCE FOR THE MASTERS.” Reverence? Hmm…



By Orin Starn

Golf has long had an image problem.

Many people, after all, consider it a dopey, snobby, boring game for chubby white men in plaid pants. Even golfers sometimes talk down the sport. “Where else could a guy with an IQ like mine make this much money?,” the well-known touring professional Hubert Green once said.

Tiger Woods was supposed to transform golf, especially its whites-only reputation. When this charismatic black prodigy rocketed to stardom a decade ago, there was optimistic talk about the game opening to African Americans and other minorities. It only heightened the story’s drama that Tiger’s breakthrough win came in the 1997 Masters Tournament at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club with its black waiters, caddies, and shoeshine “boys” and exclusive membership of rich white barons of industry.

Then just 21, Tiger knew about prejudice and racial stereotyping from family experience. His father, Earl, the first black baseball player at Kansas State, was forced to stay in substandard Jim Crow hotels away from his teammates. Tiger’s own kindergarten classmates once tied him to a tree and danced around chanting the n-word.

“You’re my hero,” Oprah Winfrey gushed over this young black man taking a white sport by storm.

It’s almost spring now, Masters time again. But a decade after Tiger’s first triumph at Augusta, it has become apparent that the idea of Tiger as his sport’s racial savior was vastly oversold. The truth, Tiger or not, is that the numbers of blacks and other minorities playing professional golf has instead been declining in recent years.

Golf was the last major sport to integrate in the first place. Only a long, bruising campaign led by legendary boxing champion Joe Louis, a golf nut, rolled back the professional tour’s “Caucasians-only” clause in 1961, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier.

The first black professionals suffered every indignity. Charles Sifford, the first African American to win a PGA event, found human feces in the cup at the Phoenix Open; he received telephoned death threats at another tournament. The Masters didn’t invite its first black golfer until 1975. As writer Curt Sampson documents, the idea of a good time for Augusta National members before World War II was watching blindfolded local black teen-agers beat each other bloody in a boxing ring “battle royal,” a few dollars going to the last one standing.

But a cohort of black professional golfers persevered, and there were more than ten black PGA regulars in the 1970s. Hispanic professionals also made their mark, among them Lee Trevino, the smart, garrulous self-described “Super Mex” who became one of the top players of his time. By contrast to the more privileged background of most professionals then and now, Trevino grew up poor in a south Texas shack.

“I was twenty-one years old,” Trevino liked to joke, “before I knew Manual Labor wasn’t a Mexican.”

But consider this: Tiger is today the lone African American among the 125 players on the PGA tour. And there are just two Hispanics, the relatively obscure Robert Gamez and Pat Perez, out on the circuit competing for the more than $250 million in prize money.

A single black golfer, Tim O’Neal, plays the minor league Nationwide tour. The great Althea Gibson and other black women were on the women’s LPGA circuit several decades ago. Now there is not a single African American tour member in spite of the influx of fine Asian and Asian American players, a lesser force in men’s golf.

Even black caddies have almost vanished altogether. As the job became lucrative with mushrooming tournament purses, whites moved in to carry the bags. Tiger’s New Zealand-born caddy, Steve Williams, likely earned about one million dollars last year, a minor celebrity in his own right.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, no one wants to talk about the resegregation of professional golf. The convenient assumption appears to be that Tiger’s stardom has fixed everything and, as a result, that any mention now of “race,” or, Ben Hogan forbid, “racism” would be party pooper political correctness.

Back in 1996, a first Nike commercial introduced Tiger in a hiply grainy video montage. “There are still courses that I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin,” Tiger said in the ad. Nike wanted to market its newest superstar spokesman as a brave racial pioneer in the white country club world.

Since then, Tiger has morphed into a bland, unthreatening corporate pitchman in the Michael Jordan mold. “Republicans by tennis shoes too,” as his Airness explained his refusal to support a campaign to unseat Jesse Helms, the old race-baiting North Carolina senator.

Tiger won’t offend anybody by declaring that his new $1,700 Tiger Woods “Limited Edition” TAG Heuer is “the only watch that I can wear on my wrist without adversely affecting my golf swing.”

Of course, it shouldn’t be up to Tiger to shoulder the burden of raising uncomfortable questions about golf’s failure to integrate. Why shouldn’t white professionals like Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, or Davis Love III say something? No one seems to want to admit that the PGA tour is not so far from looking like a whites-only club all over again.

More deeply, the situation in golf measures the dilemma of race relations in America today. At least in the abstract, most Americans want to get along, and to be rid of the silly, strange yet powerful folk belief that skin color says something essential about the person inside. Even the PGA tour now promotes its “First Tee” program for poor kids with spots featuring adorable black, Hispanic, Asian American, and white boys and girls in a Kumbaya-like image of itself as the embodiment of corporate rainbow coalition values.

And yet, few of us want nowadays to confront the hard, complex questions about why America is still such a segregated, stratified society. The idealism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement has receded into the grainy, almost Jurassic past of black-and-white news footage. A part-fatalistic, part-cynical “race fatigue” instead prevails as if it were pointless even to talk about the divides of color and class in these new times. The film Crash, this year’s Academy Award winner, captures an America where the power of race and racial mistrust is matched only by a jaded lack of any real hope about the possibility of doing anything about it.

Many whites think enough has been done already with legalized discrimination a thing of the past. They are more worried about shopping and schools, taxes and terrorism.

And many blacks and other minorities don’t want to be tokens or social crusaders. Tiger himself has never much liked talking publicly about anything besides his swing, scores, and chances in the latest tournament (and for that matter describes himself as “Cablinasian” as opposed to “black” – part-white, part-black, part-Indian, and part-Asian by way of his Thai mother).

We try to dodge race, but it won’t go away.

If Tiger triumphs again at the Masters, he’ll don the victor’s traditional green jacket to applause from Augusta’s millionaire members, tournament ticketholders, and fellow competitors and their caddies.

He’ll be one of the only brown faces in a sea of white.

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