Friday, November 14, 2008


I had no doubt that Barack Obama would win the presidency.

Consider this: every single American president for the last century has been a golfer (with the lone exception of Jimmy Carter, who only lasted one term anyway). The Obama campaign preferred photo-ops of their man jumping it up with the troops at the more plebeian sport of basketball. But our new president has long played golf when he can, both vacationing in his native Hawaii and in his adopted home state of Illinois. His victory was thus assured by the Golf Theory of the Presidency given that neither Hillary Clinton nor John McCain happens to indulge in the the old Scottish game.

Many observers, me included, have noted the uncanny parallels between Obama and Tiger Woods. In this op-ed just published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers, I explore what lessons Tiger's impact in golf may have for our new president.


Still A Long Way To The Green

By Orin Starn

It’s not farfetched to argue that Tiger Woods’popularity helped pave the way for Barack Obama’s smashing victory. That legions of golfing white businessmen already idolized Woods may well have made it less of a stretch for them and others to imagine a black man as the country’s president.

For that matter, Woods, much like Obama, presents himself as something of a new “post-racial” figure crossing old color lines by virtue of his mixed ancestry.

But if Woods did indeed make it easier for some to cast their vote for Obama, the superstar golfer’s impact on his own sport holds a cautionary lesson for an Obama presidency -- there’s no necessary correlation between the feel-good symbolism of a pioneering racial breakthrough and actual on-the-ground progress towards a race-blind America.

Many observers predicted that Woods’ example would revolutionize the sociology of golf. They thought many more minority kids would be encouraged to take up the old Scottish pastime, and the sport shed its ugly racial past once and for all. (The PGA tour had a Caucasians-only clause until 1961). The golf establishment promotes its youth golf programs with Kumbaya-style TV ads of smiling inner-city kids, as if the game had indeed put the messy matters of race and money in the rearview mirror.

Actually, golf has gone into racial reverse by many measures. Back in the 1970s, 10 different African-Americans played on the PGA tour; a poor Chicano kid from Dallas, Lee Trevino, became one of the era’s top golfers. Now Woods is the lone black golfer among the 125 card-holding pros, and there are no rising young junior black stars.

Two U.S.-born Latinos now play on the PGA tour, as do an increased international contingent and some exciting new Asian-American stars. Yet the circuit remains overwhelmingly comprised of whites from country club backgrounds. You don’t even see black or Latino caddies anymore, now that carrying the golf bags of a Woods or Phil Mickelson has become a lucrative enterprise.

The reasons for the whitening of professional golf are complex. Except for the touring pros, golfers no longer use caddies in the age of the golf cart. This has shut a traditional backdoor into the game for poor and minority kids. And to train a golf champion takes big money that many black and Latino families do not have.

So does the Tiger Woods paradox really have any relevance for an Obama presidency? I think so. If the visibility of Woods promotes the illusion of race as “fixed” in golf, the very same danger exists with Obama for the country as a whole. His election encourages a fuzzy self-congratulatory feeling that we’ve exorcised the demons of slavery and Jim Crow at last. It can be easy to forget the outsized hardships facing so many black and Latino kids growing up in tough neighborhoods. Poverty, marginalization, and brown skin still very often travel together in America today

Just look at who's doing most of the ditch-digging, grass-cutting, and other dirty work at America's golf courses. It's Latino laborers, barely earning enough to get by.

And we don’t exactly yet have a government that looks like America either. Just as Woods is now the only African-American on the PGA tour, so Obama has been the only one in the U.S. Senate. Now there are none with his resignation last week to focus on the presidency.

The real question is whether an Obama administration will make strides towards addressing the old ghosts of poverty and racial inequality that still haunt 21st century America.

His election was a good opening shot. We still have a long iron over water yet to go.