Woods unfairly at center of Augusta debate?

Updated: October 20, 2002, 8:58 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Tiger Woods doesn't understand why his opinion in the debate on whether women should be members at Augusta National Golf Club has become so important.

Tiger Woods

"I didn't see it coming to this degree," he said in an interview published Sunday in The New York Times. "Yes, I've always wanted to impact lives in a positive way. But I like to pick my own causes, and not be forced into having to do something."

Woods said it was not true that he avoids political controversy for fear it might hurt his corporate interests and endorsements.

"There's no validity to that at all," he said. "I'll say what I believe, but I'll choose when," Woods told the paper on Friday from Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where he is playing in the Walt Disney World Resort Golf Classic.

Woods was first asked about the issue of women membership at Augusta during the British Open in July.

At that time he said, "It would be nice to see everyone have an equal chance to participate, but there is nothing you can do about it."

When Woods, the world's top golfer, was asked again last week, he gave a more detailed answer.

"Do I want to see a female member?" he said. "Yes. But it's our right to have any club set up the way we want to."

Woods called upon the two key players in the dispute -- Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National, and Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations -- to work out a compromise.

"If they both sat down and talked about it, it would be resolved a lot better than what is going on right now," Woods said Wednesday.

There is dispute as to whether Woods' latest comments were positive or negative.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, credited Woods for "trying to do the right thing," but criticized what Woods said.

"He said they're both right, didn't he?" Lowery told the newspaper. "He sounds like a politician. It's a good thing he doesn't play golf that way. That's so nonaggressive, so milquetoast, so lukewarm.

"He would never have hit that shot out over the water onto the green with that kind of attitude. I guess it's his way of being politically correct and safe. But you can't be all things to all people. Sometimes you have to take a principled stand. I understand that as the point man for the game of golf, and who's done more for the sport than anyone else, he doesn't want to get embroiled in controversy. But some things you can't avoid getting embroiled in."

Tommie Smith, the champion sprinter who protested the treatment of black Americans by raising a gloved fist at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, disagreed with Lowery's assessment.

"Very diplomatic," Smith said of Woods. "I think he's coming out in his social development."

Woods is trying to avoid situations in which he can't seem to come out on the right side.

"I have the feeling that sometimes I can't say anything, because I'm going to get criticized," Woods told the paper. "And what's unfair about that is, people always ask my opinion. They ask for my opinion, and then sometimes when I give it to them, they don't respect what I have to say. If that's the case, then don't ask."

Billie Jean King, who helped revolutionize women's tennis, had no problem with Woods' comments.

"I thought they were right on," King said. "He said they should get together, person to person, and have a dialogue."

David Duval thinks Woods has been painted into a corner.

"There's a firestorm around him," Duval said. "We've talked about it. Regardless of the position he takes, he's wrong. He's not ever going to be right, unless he agrees with the party that is really upset. He's entirely in a no-win situation that way.

"I think most of it's because he's not white. He's looked to pick up where Jim Brown, Michael Jordan and some of these guys have left off. That's a tough spot to be in."

Duval told the newspaper that he, and other players on the pro tour, feel that people should leave Woods alone.

"He's 26 years old," Duval said. "Let him play golf. I imagine you'll see him take positions here and there, but I don't think his focus right now should be social change and social influence. He's just starting his career."

Woods would like to focus on issues that he is more closely involved with.

"I have my foundation," he said, referring to the Tiger Woods Foundation, which encourages minority youngsters to learn and play golf. "We're trying to do a lot of different things. But what I've found is that a lot of people want me to be the head of their cause. It's hard.

"I certainly understand what they're trying to accomplish at Augusta. I also understood the Confederate flag issue a while ago. But I'm trying to keep my focus on my foundation, and what we're trying to do. I don't think it should be the responsibility of celebrities, or sports figures, to have to be the champion of all causes."

Johnson has said Augusta does not have exclusionary policies, although it has never had a female member in its 70 years, and it wasn't until 1990 that the club admitted a black member.

As Burk began to pressure corporate sponsors of the Masters, Johnson responded in late August by dropping them for next year's tournament, making the Masters the only commercial-free sports broadcast on network television.

In recent weeks, the chief executives of American Express, Citigroup Corp. and the U.S. Olympic Committee -- all members at Augusta -- have issued statements supporting female members at the home of the Masters.

Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press