Commentary

Critic: Woods in denial about race

Updated: April 5, 2009, 1:50 PM ET
By Mark Schwarz | ESPN

His younger brother, Walter, was perhaps the greatest running back ever, but Eddie Payton has devoted his life to a sport in which the only thing that gets hit is a dimpled ball.

For the past quarter century, Payton has been the head golf coach at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., where he has led the historically black school to 24 conference titles in 25 years. He's the Eddie Robinson of college golf.

Yet Payton says he feels like a failure. Every time he turns on the television, he sees only one African-American representative on the PGA Tour.

[+] EnlargeKultida Woods
AP Photo/Reed SaxonTiger Woods' heritage includes African-American, Native-American, Asian and Caucasian ancestry. His mother, Kultida Woods, is Thai. Here Kultida Woods is holding Tiger and Elin's daughter, Sam.

"I've been coaching 25 years," he says, "and I have not turned out one."

Payton drives to a public course 20 minutes from campus and leads the way to a putting green where Brett Benson is practicing his stroke. Benson is a strong country kid from Minnesota. He is Payton's top male golfer, and he is white.

Minutes later, a pair of young women report to practice, putters in hand. Payton introduces his top female player, Mirielle LeBlanc from Methegan, Nova Scotia. LeBlanc is accompanied by another Jackson State teammate, Amy Breakwell, who is also Canadian, and also white.

There are several African-American golfers on Jackson State's men's and women's rosters. That his premier players are white is a sign of the times. Since Tiger Woods left Stanford after the 1996 season, few African-American golfers have moved the needle in college golf. And Payton says there's not much promise in the pipeline.

"For the first time in memory, there is not one African-American high school golfer in America that will be an impact player that can change the fortunes of our program," he says.

In 1976, when Tiger Woods was 1, there were 12 African-American golfers on the PGA Tour. Today, there are as many African-Americans in the Oval Office as there are at the highest level of men's golf.

"Actually there are none," Payton says. "None that will profess to be an African-American. We have a hybrid who happens to be the greatest player of our generation."

While Payton calls him a hybrid, Woods has coined the term "Cablanasian" to explain his racial heritage which includes African-American, Native-American, Asian and Caucasian ancestry.

Duke University professor Orin Starn, who has written extensively about golf and race, calls Woods a racial visionary.

"For Tiger to call himself 'Cablanasian,' he's not saying that he's not black," says Starn, who teaches cultural anthropology. "What he's saying is, 'Yes I am black and I'm proud to be the honorary grandson of Charlie Sifford, the Jackie Robinson of golf, but I'm not just black. I'm also white, and I'm also Asian, I'm also Native-American. All of these different things are a part of my ancestry.'"

But Payton says Woods is in denial.

"If he really wants to know what people think he is, go to New York about 6:30 in the evening, stand on any corner and try to stop a cab," he says. "They'll let you know what you are."

If Woods embraced his African-American identity, says Payton, it would serve as powerful motivation for aspiring young black golfers.

"It would help any aspiring African-American golfer who has had to deal with stuff Tiger hasn't had to deal with," says Payton. "And he doesn't need to say he's proud to be an African-American golfer. What he needs to say is 'I am an African-American golfer.'"

At a recent news conference, Woods was asked to respond to critics like Payton who say he doesn't use his mantle as the world's most recognizable athlete to help reverse the trend that has seen African-Americans disappear on the PGA Tour.

"I reach out each and every day with my foundation," Woods said. "We don't focus on golf, because that's not the sole purpose of life. Life is not about hitting a high draw and a high fade. It's about being a better person each and every day and helping others. That's what life is all about. Is golf a part of people's lives? Yes, it's part of my life. But it's not the end of all things in my life."

Says Payton, in response to Woods: "He can be politically correct all he wants. But we're talking about golf, which he can directly influence. And the fact remains, there's fewer people of color playing golf at the highest level than when he started."

Starn says Woods absorbs a disproportionate amount of the blame for the fact that golf looks nothing like America -- and perhaps not enough credit as an example for golfers of color.

"People have talked about this idea of Barack Obama as the so-called 'Magic Negro,' as a sort of black man who's expected to fix everything and to make everybody feel good about themselves with a magic wand to eliminate and make disappear the problems of racism, and poverty and conflict in America," Starn says. "And I think there's been this idea that Tiger should somehow be a kind of 'Magic Negro' for the PGA Tour, and that he should lift up his wand and somehow make golf into a more diverse and inclusive sport. I don't think this should be on him, at least exclusively."

Payton wonders if not Woods, then who?

"It's a shame that the person who can do the most to bridge the gap says, 'I made it. Now you make it,'" Payton says. "Instead he could say, 'Well this is what my daddy taught me. These are the drills.'

"There are people that can be motivated to be Tiger Woods with a little help and encouragement from him. The people you idolize and emulate can have the greatest influence on what you're doing.

"I can't make him do what I feel I would do, but at some point he'll look and see no other blacks out there."

Mark Schwarz is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. His work appears on "Outside the Lines."