Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Tradition Unlike Any Other

The Masters Tournament has been a trademark of early April since 1934. It is one of four “major championships” that are held for professional male golfers each year, and is always the first major to be played in each golf season. Over the years, the tournament has developed into arguably the most revered and respected in the world of golf, and is even considered to be one of the most prestigious events in all of sports. Winning the Masters automatically puts you into the history books with the greatest golfers of all time and into a select and esteemed club of those that have obtained the tournament prize – the ever-elusive “Green Jacket”. In fact, Angel Cabrera just slipped his arms into one of those emerald blazers this past Sunday, officially kicking the 2009 golf season into high gear. The tournament, held over four days, is played at the immaculate Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia each year, and has come to be dubbed “a tradition unlike any other.” However, for a significant portion of the major’s 73 years of existence, that tradition wasn’t available to everyone. For a long time, the color of one’s skin – regardless of their ability to play golf – determined their opportunity to compete.

In 1974, Lee Elder won the Mansanto Open, gaining him entry into the Masters Tournament the following year. One problem: Augusta National did not allow black golfers to play on its course. Being that Elder was a professional golfer (not a paying customer) and the fact that he had rightfully earned his spot in the field, he was permitted to play at Augusta for the ’75 tournament. He was the first African-American to play in the Masters, and did so 15 years before Augusta actually allowed non-professional blacks to play the course. Elder’s accomplishment was ground-breaking, yet it merely set the stage for what the future would bring.

In 1997, 22 years after Elder had his historic moment, another occurred on the links of the Augusta National Golf Course. A skinny, wide-eyed, 21-year-old kid by the name of Eldrick Woods won the Masters. What made the victory by this young man (better known as “Tiger”) so historic, was that he was distinctly different from every past winner of the Tournament. In fact, the difference was so blatant, you could notice it simply by looking at him: He wasn’t white. Having both African-American and Asian-American descent, Tiger became the first non-white golfer to don the Green Jacket. Tiger Woods became a legend.

Unless you live outside the confines of the Milky Way galaxy, you know full well who Tiger Woods is. He is one of the richest and most recognizable athletes in the universe and has stood atop the world of golf for over a decade, his success unrivaled for this generation of golfers. He is the Michael Jordan of his sport, and has single-handedly made the game relevant in today’s society. In all honesty, his importance to the pastime is almost unfathomable; it’s nearly impossible to describe the man’s significance. Tiger Woods is to the game of golf what Lauren Conrad is to The Hills; sure, there may be other people involved, but he’s the straw that stirs the drink. If Tiger’s not playing, you’re not interested – it’s that simple. But with that said, Woods’ victory at Augusta twelve years ago is even superior to his mere presence in the golf world. He became part of something that was much bigger than any athlete or sporting event, because his win aided a battle that spanned two centuries. Tiger made an incredible break-through in the realm of civil rights and minorities in the United States.

By 1997, African-Americans and other people of color had shredded the great majority of the chains and barriers that had held them down for so many years in this country. However, because they had been so oppressed for so many years, there were an endless amount of things that blacks had yet to accomplish, whether it be in sports or just society in general. Tiger accomplished one of those things, and put himself in some very exclusive territory. In fact, the impact of minorities in sports, like Tiger, has played a major role in the overall progression of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball in 1947, Texas-Western University’s basketball team starting all black players against Kentucky in 1966, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos wearing the black gloves at the 1968 Olympics are all events that helped the standings of blacks in this country and served (in many ways) as a few of the many stepping-stones that led to our election of a bi-racial President in 2008, Barack Obama. Tiger Woods’ triumph in 1997 is on level with those other historic moments in sports, and yet it doesn’t seem to get the respect and recognition that it truly deserves.

The issue of race in sports is one that exists in the past, present, and will undoubtedly reside in the future as well. Whether it be something positive - like Tony Dungy becoming the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl - or something negative – like the lack of black head football coaches in the NCAA - the topic is constantly relevant in the athletic realm. And with as much progress that has been made in the area of minorities in sports and the amount of attention that the subject has always collected, it’s rather surprising that Tiger’s win in ’97 isn’t mentioned more often among the likes of Jackie Robinson, the ’68 Olympics, and other big moments for blacks in sports. When you step back and examine the entire of scope of Tiger’s first Green Jacket, it’s astonishing how dramatic that moment was.

At the time, Woods was becoming the face of golf faster than *NSYNC was becoming the face of every teenage girl’s newest obsession. Deemed as a prodigy since he was a toddler, Woods’ moment at Augusta in 1997 did more than just state that he had arrived. The young star was barely old enough to buy a beer, and yet he owned the tournament over the four-day period. Just seven years after Augusta National began allowing blacks entry into their golf club, Tiger Woods became the youngest golfer ever (21) to win the Masters, and in the process broke the 32-year-old, 4-day course record by shooting 18-under par (207 shots) for the tournament. And oh by the way, he just happened to be of African-American and Asian-American descent, making him even more unique than the previous all-white winners of the major.

Becoming the first non-white golfer to win such a prestigious and exclusive event, such as the Masters, was earth-shattering at the time. Woods changed the course of history. He fulfilled the dreams of Lee Elder and Jackie Robinson, and even fulfilled the dreams of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. In just 207 swings, Tiger Woods became legendary.

Since that incredible day 12 years ago, Tiger has continued to do pretty well for himself. He currently has 14 major championships under his belt (including 4 total Masters’ victories), 66 other PGA Tour event wins, and the #1 World Ranking among professional golfers. He was also the highest-paid athlete in 2008, earning a measly $110 million from winnings and endorsements. In many ways, his success may be the reason why his 1997 Masters win isn’t given the attention it deserves. For a man that has been on the Mount Rushmore of athletes for over a decade, his mastery at the game of golf has become almost taken for granted. It’s more of a story when Tiger loses a tournament than when he wins one. We have become so use to his greatness that we expect him to win every time he steps on a course. But his prominence shouldn’t dilute what he was able to achieve. It shouldn’t take away from what he did on April 13 of 1997.

Tiger did more than just make a name for himself. He accomplished something that many people assumed would never occur; he accomplished something that was much larger than he was. Woods embodied an entire race and history of people in this country and put them on his back for 72 holes of golf. Putting on that Green Jacket was a very, very big deal – bigger than any other victory, bigger than the #1 World Ranking, bigger than anything else Woods has ever accomplished. That specific feat is more fit for history books than it is for ESPN Classic. And yet, words on a screen could never do it justice, so I hope you will just take my word for it. Because unfortunately, it may be impossible for Tiger to ever receive the respect that the moment truly deserves. I just hope another $100 million or so for each of the next 10 to 12 years will be enough to make up for it.

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