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Running From Race: Tiger’s Isolation on the PGA Tour

Because guilt is a mutha, Sergio Garcia shook Tiger Woods’ hand Monday at Merion in advance of the U.S. Open. It was hard to tell who most wanted the moment – and all the controversy – to end, but one would have to guess it was Woods. He backed away and tried to go back to hitting balls, like he usually does in these situations, stuck in another of those moments that reminds us that Tiger just isn’t like the rest of the guys on tour.

Thursday, Tiger will spend four hours paired with Adam Scott and his caddie, Steve Williams. That would be the same caddy who, after years as Tiger’s henchman, told a gathering of caddies and tour officials that he wanted to shove Scott’s 2011 win at Bridgestone — and Tiger loss — “up that black arsehole.”

That’s a one-time friend and a full-time foe treating Tiger the same way, with his blackness being what they leaned on when it was time for a cheap laugh. And, in each moment, laughs were what they got.

Tiger’s the black guy, and that is immutable. If it can be avoided, no one’s demonstrated the ability to do so. But it’s hard to ignore how badly Tiger wishes that wasn’t the case. Not that he wishes he wasn’t black – I have no idea – but he seems willing to brush off anything that brings extra attention to that fact. This is the man who quickly forgave his “friend,” Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman, when she joked on air about “lynching [Tiger] in a back alley.” Anything to make that discussion go away, even if it meant ignoring yet another affront to his dignity.

Here’s the problem – his efforts to separate race from his persona have proven futile. They didn’t work in his childhood; they didn’t work at Stanford; and they certainly haven’t worked on the PGA Tour. Neither did cutely calling himself “Cablinasian,” a quixotic attempt to combine all his ancestry into a classification that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. Only white people get to be colorless in America. Cablinasian might seem close, but it’s a world away from that dream.

If this is frustrating to him, it’s disheartening to many who watch it happen. He’s tried to be like everyone else. He’s made bazillions of dollars by building a brand – “I Am Tiger Woods” was really saying, “Tiger Woods is just like you” – based on that premise. If this guy, as publicly nondescript as any athlete has ever been, can’t exist outside of the prism of race, no one can.

This isn’t to pass judgment on Tiger for this approach. What one might see as cowardice, is called grace just as easily by those on the other side. Only Tiger truly knows, within himself, where one ends and the other begins, and none of us know what he’s had to do to cope. And God knows what he’s seen in golf, the major American sport most closely tied to racism and white privilege.

He claims he was tied to a tree as a child and had the so-called “N-word” scrawled on him more than a decade before he was patronized and disparaged at the precipice of his first Masters championship. When he was engulfed in scandal in 2010, he was treated like the first adulterer in the history of golf by the media and his fellow tour professionals; two groups who certainly know better.

Humility has been demanded of him from those with no authority to do so. He’s been the target of public shaming because of his race by, dare I say, the help, and a golfer who isn’t good or accomplished enough to even call himself Tiger’s peer. He’s been the subject of scorn and pettiness rarely directed, in public, toward the king of the hill, a man whose very presence made millions for everyone associated with the PGA Tour. And while all those things happened, Woods seemed most interested in changing the subject.

There are some things no one can run from, though. And on a weekend when we will see – all together now – if Tiger Woods is back, he’ll be stuck where he’s always been. The Garcias and Williamses of the world will always be there, and going back to hitting balls won’t make them go away.

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