You don't have to like golf to love Tiger Woods. His swing is a triumph of poetry over physics, sending drives 350 yards down the fairway. And, like the very best golfers -- Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus -- he converts passion and concentration into a kind of spirituali\ty.
After winning three U.S. Amateur titles in a row, Woods turned professional last month, signing endorsement contracts with Nike and Titleist that are worth $60 million over five years. He's played well, too, nearly winning a tournament in Illinois.
Three other things to love about Tiger Woods: He's young (just 20), smart (a junior at Stanford) and black.
That last characteristic is particularly unusual. Only 3.6 percent of the 25 million golfers in this country are African American. And black professional golfers -- like Jewish skeet-shooters, Hispanic hockey players and Italian American hurdlers -- are rare.
Woods is so good and, as a young black person (I should note here that in fact his father is African American, his mother of Thai extraction) playing golf, so unusual, that nearly everyone is cheering for him. That's why the advertising campaign that Nike has mounted for Woods is so discordant, dishonest and even vile.
The modest Tiger Woods may be the darling of duffers -- white and black -- and of the entire press corps, but Nike has decided that the best way to sell shoes is to portray him as a defiant victim of American racism.
On Aug. 29, Woods made his pro debut in a three-page Nike ad in the Wall Street Journal. The ad depicted a cocky Woods ticking off his achievements ("I shot in the 60s when I was 12," etc.) and saying, "There are still courses in the United States that I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin."
This is utter nonsense. Perhaps in the past, Woods was denied invitations to private country clubs. But that's not what the ad said. It claimed that today, Tiger Woods, easily one of the half-dozen most popular golfers in the world, can't play where he wants.
The ad is telling blacks and other minorities that racism is so virulent in this country that, no matter how good you are, you will be despised and rejected by whites. You have to stand up to them (in Nikes, of course).
The ad concludes with Woods saying, "I've heard I'm not ready for you. Are you ready for me?" This is just the sort of hip, hoops-in-the-hood image that Nike has carefully cultivated to appeal not just to minorities but to with-it whites.
The only problem is that, in the case of Woods, it's based on a lie. I called Nike to get a list of the courses he's not allowed to play. Finally, James Small, the compa\ny's public relations director in Beaverton, Ore., called me back.
"You're absolutely right," he admitted, affably. "Tiger Woods can play on any golf course he wants."
In other words, the ad campaign's entire premise is wrong?
Well, not exactly, said Small. "The goal of the ad was to raise awareness that golf is not an inclusive sport."
It's true that a lot of courses are private clubs, and clubs by definition are not "inclusive." But most courses -- including great ones like Pebble Beach -- are open to the public.
No, the average golfer (black or white) can't get a starting time at the exclusive Chevy Chase Club. But, certainly, Tiger Woods can. And the reason he transcends the normal restrictions of private clubs is that he is a terrific golfer.
In this country, merit trumps race. That fact is one of the glories of our market republic. If you're good enough, people will buy what you're selling no matter who you are.
After all, the most popular entertainer in America, in terms of earnings, is a black woman named Oprah Winfrey (she netted $97 million last year, says Forbes). The most popular sports figure, Michael Jordan, is also black. So is the most popular politician, Colin Powell.
In fact, Woods is making his $60 million in large part because he is black. Whites, too, love an underdog and a rarity.
Are African Americans denied opportunities because of their skin color? Yes. The sad truth is that racial, ethnic and religious prejudices will endure in this country, as they have in every other.
But why exaggerate? In the case of Nike, an $8 billion company that just reported record profits yesterday, the shameful answer seems to be money. It's not hard to understand. Myths of racism and victimization sell big. Just look at rap music.
Nike knows that the best way to sell undifferentiated products is by endowing them with an aura or an attitude. A favorite attitude among advertisers today is cheek. Apple Computer, Seven-Up and Benetton have used this posture well, but it's getting hackneyed. Even Amtrak is running an ad that features a huge photo of coy blonde and the copy:
" She's reading Nietzsche,' Harris noted to himself as he walked towards the cafe car for a glass of cabernet. And as he passed her seat, Maureen looked up from her book and thought, Nice buns.' "
It's good to see Nike reaching beyond this banality -- but what's wrong with responsibility and honesty?
Nike is also smart to recognize a huge untapped market for golf shoes and clothes -- and smart to see Woods as the ticket to it. "He's going to bring minorities to the game and youth to the game," says Merle Marting of Nike's golf division.
I have my doubts about whether a bucolic five-hour round of golf will ever appeal to the young and the restless, but I hope Nike is right. Stuffy duffers in lime-green pants have dominated the greens too long.
Tiger Woods may be just the guy to change things -- not by being portrayed as a phony victim but by being celebrated as a master of a very difficult, very beautiful game.