In slightly more than four years, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods has unquestionably become one of the greatest professional golfers in the history of the sport. He has earned millions of dollars and set records in many aspects of the game at a faster pace than anyone who ever traversed the game's intricate courses.
Ever since he joined the professional circuit in 1998, Woods has been the envy of nearly every modern golfer, including Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
By some estimates, before his career ends, Woods may become the first athlete in the world to earn $6 billion. His current game is the standard by which most other golfers are judged. Woods is a celebrity player and a powerful, authoritative figure even among his closest competitors.
Twenty-six and single, he also enjoys a reputation as a ladies' man, but only away from the links. He has disappointed some female golfers by acquiescing in the face of a bitter dispute over the continuing all-male membership policy at the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club, one of the bastions of American golf.
Despite Tiger's dominance, including his three victories in the Masters Tournament (in 1997, 2001 and 2002), golf remains among the whitest and most sexist non-contact game in all of professional sports.
Despite acceptance of several non-white players on the pro tour, female golfers still lack equality at many of golf's most prestigious clubs. A quiet but growing controversy has come to golf as women seek to become full members at Augusta, which hosts the Masters Tournament each April. Women are allowed to play at Augusta National, but only as "guests," rather than as members. That's the way it's been for all the 70 years the club has been in existence.
Last June, Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, was rebuffed by Augusta's chairman, William Johnson. She had written to Johnson, urging the organization to admit women as members.
Johnson, along with his small group of allies that run the club, is adamant about keeping women in their place, which is well outside the club's membership roles. Nobody who counts appears to be the least bit apologetic or embarrassed concerning the long-standing tradition of barring membership to women.
Burk also sent letters to seven high-profile members of Augusta National, four of whom are chief executives of well-respected companies. She asked those CEOs how they could justify belonging to a club that had no women as members. Burk's complaint underscored the disparity between these members' public stances, in which as corporate leaders they support equal opportunity for the sexes, and their private roles as members of a club that in more than three generations has not accepted a woman. Some of the 300-odd members of the Augusta National Golf Club resented Burk's "heavy-handed" tactics.
In 1962, cigar-chomping Charlie Sifford broke tradition to become the first black to play on the PGA Tour. Despite winning the Hartford Open in 1967, he never was invited to the Masters. The first black to play in the Masters arrived in 1975, when Lee Elder finally broke the seal at age 30. It took another 15 years before Augusta National put out its welcome sign to its first black member in 1990.
For all his achievements on the golf course, Tiger falls short when it comes to making things better for female golfers who suffer discrimination. Had it not been for aggressive and persistent players like Sifford and Elder more than a quarter century ago, Tiger (despite his great gifts) might not have made it into the Masters and numerous other pro tournaments.
It's time for Tiger to use his celebrity status and powerful presence in golf's upper circles to help persuade the Augusta Golf Club to admit women as members. Otherwise, he might simply serve as one more insensitive member of that old boys club at Augusta, where men jab one another with their elbows and exchange winks while pretending that all is well on golf's green acres. All this goes on under a gentleman's agreement as women continue to be locked out of some of the clubs that play host to the game Tiger Woods loves and dominates.