At a point when the momentum and the buzz were building for each man, an insensitive remark interrupted the discussion like a tray of dishes crashing to the floor. For Barack Obama it was the unearthing of incendiary sermons earlier this decade by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, regarding U.S. policy. For Woods it was an offhand remark by Golf Channel commentator Kelly Tilghman during the Mercedes-Benz Championship, a January tournament in which he wasn't even playing. During the telecast analyst Nick Faldo remarked that fellow pros would have to gang up on Woods to stop his victory march, after which Tilghman suggested they "lynch him in a back alley." Tilghman was suspended for two weeks. After Golfweek used an image of a noose on the cover to peg a story inside about the controversy, editor Dave Seanor lost his job.
"[Tilghman's] statement was very harsh; I thought it warranted a longer suspension," says Elder. "The noose on the cover went a little far."
Though he didn't start it, Woods ended up in the middle of the firestorm after his agent released a statement saying that his client was friends with Tilghman and "regardless of the choice of words used," she meant no ill intent. Some applauded Woods's measured response and desire to defuse the situation. Others, including NFL Hall of Famer and longtime activist Jim Brown, criticized Woods for missing an opportunity to condemn the use of lynch, which for many evokes images of black bodies hanging limp from ancient trees.
For all of his accomplishments on the course, Woods has not yet escaped the public perception that he doesn't take on the tough, hot-button issues as boldly as he attacks a par-5. "When Tiger said years ago that he was Cablinasian, to me that was a way of avoiding a sort of connection to African-American culture," says Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at Southern California and the author of Young, Black, Rich & Famous. "It's his right to define himself as he sees fit, but before we start with his lack of politics, we start with the fact that he has presented himself as an athlete who wants to excel based on his own excellence on the golf course, and there's not much after that."
Woods's handling of the Tilghman controversy even put longtime friends Jariah Beard and Jim Dent in different camps. The two men grew up together in Augusta, where they caddied, played golf and dealt with bigotry's thorns in different ways. Beard, who was on the bag when Fuzzy Zoeller won the 1979 Masters, insists that Woods's response to Tilghman's gaffe was more about protecting his endorsements than friendship. "He handled it the way the white people wanted him to," Beard, 67, says. "That's why he makes so much money. If he says something too much, they'll take away his money or he might get heckled. That's the way he's been. More power to him."
Dent, 68, who never won a PGA Tour event but is a 12-time winner on the seniors tour, disagrees. "When you're in sports, you don't think about the outside things," he says. "You simply do your job and enjoy what you're doing. The lady didn't mean anything. She used the wrong word. If someone was to tell me I was that good, I'd think that was a compliment."
WHEN WOODS is asked why he doesn't speak out more on social issues, his reply is that he addresses them every day through the endeavors of his learning center in Anaheim. For more than a decade he has been the face of the game, an inspiration to minorities and all youth to take up what for many of his admirers is an expensive and time-consuming sport. He is the embodiment of health, focus and hard work, gracious in victory and defeat, a dogged competitor who utters an occasional foul word. As an ambassador of his sport, what more can Woods do?
"I think Tiger handles his role in a way that is comfortable for him," says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., executive director of The First Tee, a Tour-backed youth development program, and son of the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis. "My father was criticized in the 1960s for not being more vocal and because he wasn't Muhammad Ali. They didn't realize what he did to integrate golf [he was the first African-American to play in a PGA-sanctioned event, at the 1952 San Diego Open], what he did for the Army [working to integrate bases and buying tickets for black troops to watch his exhibitions]. He didn't publicize what he did. I get concerned when people want to place expectations on people when they don't recognize the things they are already doing."
Sam Puryear, the only black golf coach at a major Division I program, sees in Woods a golfer pulled in more directions than anyone can know. "I think Tiger is one of those guys who comes along every 100 or 200 years," says Puryear, the coach at Michigan State. "He's been able to transcend all of golf's antiquated views."
Elder's take on Tiger is somewhere in the middle. He appreciates what Woods stands for and applauds the work of his learning center, which assists children of every hue. He marvels at Woods's accomplishments yet says, "I'd like him to be a little more outspoken. Sometimes you have to put something out there that's going to be a focal point for people to listen to and get people to say, 'Hey, maybe he's right. Maybe we should look at making this change.'"