Tiger Woods would like history to compare him to Jack Nicklaus, but if history is paying attention, the more apt comparison is Jack Johnson.
Like Johnson, he is the undisputed black champion of a sport once reserved for whites. Like Johnson, he’s faced any number of great white hopes, white players who were supposed to dethrone him. And like Johnson, his undoing in the public eye is a white woman.
Jack Johnson became world champion in 1908. At over six feet tall, he was billed as the Galveston Giant and was easily the best heavyweight of his day (although not the first black world champion boxer). Still he was denied a title shot for years. He held the title for seven years and at his peak was convicted of the Mann Act, because he took a white prostitute across state lines for immoral acts. Nevermind that the Mann Act wasn’t even in force when he committed the offense. Jack Johnson loved women, particularly white women, and was well-known and despised for it. During his defenses, he was continually fighting white fighters the media had made out to be his equal, but never were. Each was billed as “The Great White Hope.”
Tiger Woods has dominated his time as has no other golfer, even Jack Nicklaus. Since he first became the top ranked golfer in the world sixteen years ago, he’s spent ten of those years as number one. He’s won 105 times—which makes him second all time on the PGA Tour and third all time on the European Tour, which he rarely plays. He’s also won 14 majors during a time when fields are deeper and far more competitive than ever despite equipment changes that have eaten into his advantage and attempts by tournament organizers to “Tiger Proof” their courses. He’s not the first successful black golfer—that honor belongs to men like John Shippen, Jr., Teddy Rhodes, Charlie Sifford, and Lee Elder. But he’s the first dominant black golfer.
Like Jack Johnson, Tiger likes women, including white women, and he likes them in quantity. Like Johnson, he’s been savaged for it by the press and his peers. Jack Johnson was sentenced to a year and a day in jail and fled the country. Tiger took a four and half month hiatus from golf.
Unlike Johnson, who was outspoken and provocative, Tiger is controlled, even during interviews, although it’s not very convincing. Tiger’s pretty good at saying innocuous things that will look fine in print but accompanying them with withering stare that lets the reporter know he thinks it may be the stupidest question asked in the history of mankind. He’s also good at throwing in a smirk at the end to make sure everyone knows that what he just said may not be what he thinks.
Also during his career, Tiger’s faced a number of challengers highly touted by the press. It’s hard to say that Tiger’s faced a string of Great White Hopes because (1) all professional golfers are white or Asian—according to the WSJ, he’s the only black on the men’s or women’s pro tour and (2) the press is far too well-mannered to use those terms anymore.
Just because it’s not talked about, doesn’t mean the race issue isn’t still out there. Witness the recent nasty comment by Sergio Garcia and the clumsy attempt to clean it up by the European tour boss.
More than that though, the proof is in the hype that the press heaps on every good young white player that comes. Every time they argue that this is the one that will challenge Tiger. David Duval, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, and Phil Mickelson. They’ve all been fine golfers, but none of them has lived up to “Hope” status.
Now all this matters because this is the week of The Open, the most prestigious golf tournament in the world (sorry, Hootie). And we’re seeing more proof that the latest hope, Rory McIlroy, is wilting under the pressure of simultaneously trying to grow up, carry the hopes of a nation (N. Ireland), a continent (Europe), and implicitly a race on his young shoulders. Over the last six months he’s been sliding. Although he’s still number 2 in the world, behind Tiger of course, he’s a distant number 2, with Tiger at 12.37 ranking points and McIlroy at 8.79, despite having played 48 events to Woods’ 40.
Tiger probably won’t win this week. He’s on a “Tiger slump,” i.e., only four wins this year, and is showing signs of age and wear and tear. But the latest “Great White Hope” probably won’t either. This morning he shot 8 over par, 13 strokes off the lead and is now near the back of the field.
The press is doing these young up and comers no favors by throwing them in against Tiger. Just like Jack Johnson, he’ll simply beat their brains in.