It's been well over a year now since I became a devotee of Tiger Woods. It was instantaneous, highly combustible love, the kind that in a span of a weekend cheerfully made mincemeat of the fact that I'd never watched a golf tournament, set foot on a proper course or swung a club more than twice in succession. I fell for Tiger the same way the tomboyish protagonist of one of my favorite adolescent books, "Tunes for a Small Harmonica," fell in love with her wispy English teacher, a man she despised until one morning, listening to him read aloud one of his favorite obscure poems, she sat up in her chair and fell in love in the tiny rhythmic pause between one stanza and the next, in the drawing of a breath.
Tiger happened to me like that. I was sitting on a sofa on a Sunday, the last day of the Masters last spring, dragged there by a friend who insisted that black history was being made and I needed to witness it. Somewhere between the 10th and final holes the heavens opened up over my head and the poetry of Tiger fell rapturously into place. I divined the meaning not merely of his pending iconhood, but the things nobody knew or cared to think about: the razored hairs running down the back of his neck, the constraints yet wild possibility of his youth, the touching sureness of his stride as he headed into the terrible unknown. Here were outsized puppy feet at heartbreaking odds with a lovely, perfectly formed face and the guileless eyes of either a saint or a complete madman -- God damn if I wasn't going to be the one to find out which thing he was. In a few hours Tiger reconnected me with a heedless kind of faith and a sense of journey I hadn't felt in years; he made a Siddhartha out of me at a time in my life when, despite having potency of almost palpable weight, it couldn't have had less direction.
It's all the more remarkable because the last thing I ever thought would inspire me is golf. The closest I ever got to the sport was during childhood, growing up on a south Los Angeles street that dead-ended into a public course. On hot summer afternoons a group of friends and I would convene at the course fence, collect the balls that had accidentally been hit into our street and shamelessly sell them back to passing golfers for a quarter, after which we'd head to the neighborhood liquor store to spend our loot on ice cream and such. My best friend of the last 15 years, the one who lured me to his living room last spring for the Masters, is an aficionado who regularly held forth on the subtler glories of golf, but to little avail. I hated golf in the elliptical way I hated asparagus, not because I didn't like the taste, but because the whole thing was so colossally unappealing I could never bring myself to taste it. In short, I didn't see the point of embracing golf -- until Tiger Woods, and the Masters.
Tiger made a fool out of me like I hadn't been made since 1984 and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." tour, when I thrilled to a whole canon of images I had never seen or lived but felt nonetheless -- a Jersey boardwalk, a dark road to nowhere, the small-town entropy of dreams. Words failed my enormity of feeling; at Bruce's concert I could only throw up my arms, sway, waggle fingers in delirious assent. Tiger, in a very different but no less significant way, brought me to my feet and made me do the same thing in front of a television. If Bruce illuminated for me the redemptive power of despair -- of a life poorly lived, of the chance at another -- Tiger illuminated a similar power of confidence, of possibly getting your shit right the first go-round. Last April, at the age of 35, overburdened with caution and a sense that my dubious star had risen and was rising no further, that was a revolutionary thought indeed. Golf was suddenly the most salient of metaphors. Tiger was not only convincing me of my own native ability to tackle the unknowable, he was making history, and in the process agitating a tsunamic wave of sociocultural introspection beneath his golf-spiked puppy feet, introspection of a scale that hadn't been forced upon this politically somnolent country since Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Which is not to say that we agreed on everything. Tiger and I had our political differences, which were sharpest at the points where he asserted he saw no skin color, that he felt affronted at being called only black. "Oh, bullshit, Tiger!" I shouted at the television screen as he sat placidly across from Oprah. Have I, who proportionately share the same genetic mix as you, along with scores of other black folks, been a Negro all this time for nothing? We had to talk. Still, I was hopelessly enchanted; Tiger was flawed, but magic, and more magic for being flawed. He couldn't sing, but, like Bruce, he had a sheer force of person and could make things happen by lowering his eyes and wielding his golf club/guitar. I resolved to go out and buy all of Tiger's greatest hits. In too many years of romantic misfires and running myself through maturity checkpoints I had grown to miss hero worship, that eager sense of surrender, the mindless postering of bedroom walls with an adored male image. I started hunting for posters and fantasized about things I would never do, but that revived me merely because I considered them: Tatooing a Tiger heart on my arm, stowing away in his private plane.
My boyfriend at the time, a sometime actor and longtime caddy, did not take kindly to my new interest. He was solidly with Tiger throughout the Masters triumph -- "Kicked those white boys' asses up and down the fairway!" he exulted -- but quickly lost empathy when I began sighing over the latest Nike Tiger ad or gazing at a Sports Illustrated photo spread with a charged reverence he thought should be reserved for him. To admire Tiger as a bastion of racial uplift was OK; to consider him as anything beyond was blasphemous and unsettling. There was nothing my boyfriend could do but set about deconstructing a myth I had already made; of course he failed, and we eventually split. He took particular umbrage to the fact that a couple of girlfriends and I drove up to Palm Springs one weekend last fall because Tiger was playing in a tournament at La Quinta. None of us had ever been to such an event before, but we were willing to do anything (which wound up including changing a flat tire and enduring snubs by tournament officials) for a glimpse of the Man. "Tiger Woods!" my ex sputtered in the end. "He's all right. He's ... a kid. Nothing special about him."
"Beg your pardon?" I said, not bothering to conceal my sarcasm. "Nothing special?"
"Well. First of all, he looks like a whole lot of people I know. Common. Second of all, he probably won't be around that long. I know golf, and golf goes away from you. You're great one minute, a dog the next. There're a whole lot of guys been through that." He went on to detail how Tiger's ferocious swing would throw out his back, how his quick temper and penchant for winning would always undermine the patience that was much more essential to success than he yet realized. He inferred that Tiger was a lot like a million other brothers out there who, however smart and however willing, were destined to lose their way.
Not that I'm trying to establish a pattern, but I've gotten similar Tiger wariness from other black men, men for whom athletes are a no-brainer when it comes to objects of admiration. Nor do they seem to mind when the women they're close to profess an affinity for Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Ken Griffey Jr. But they are superstars to the point of seeming most real as video montages and marketing strategies, not people; Tiger is that rare superstar who seems unfinished, emotionally accessible, in part because golf grants him amazing space. He is a cowboy, a range rat. Rather than sharing turf with 10 other players or squeezing shoulder to shoulder on a bench, he is always alone with a vast green canvas. When he muffs a putt, he flinches for a gallery of thousands, and the world, to see. At one point in the tournament, flushed from the sun and having to hustle from green to green like so many foxholes, I was crouched directly behind him, right at his pants leg. He stood a couple of inches off, arms folded and lost in thought, tall and deeply brown and borderline skinny and, in the most extraordinary sense of the word, ordinary. My ex was right, but not in the way he thought; I could have swooned.
Close up, Tiger squirmed beneath his famous telegenic cool: He sighed, fidgeted a little, blew his nose, moved to take off his cap but thought the better of it, sighed again. In the dead spaces between strokes he didn't entirely know what to do with himself, and couldn't decide because he didn't know who or what was watching him, so he could only stand looking a little bewildered and overly solemn. The constraints of his altar-boy composure were nearly palpable, and my heart went out to him; despite having obscene amounts of money, Tiger had to be in one hell of a spot. I wanted more than anything to express my sympathy, but golf etiquette forced me into that same damn silence.
A year later Tiger is not as routinely setting the world afire (neither am I, but I'm trying) and the world is growing impatient, sometimes nastily so. Consider: He finishes in the top five in all of the tournaments he plays for the first three months of the year, fourth in the Masters, third in the rigorous British Open, and it is not good enough. A sports analyst on cable television grouses that "Tiger has shown me nothing." Oprah gets him back on the show so that he can publicly assess this slacking off. A recent item in the sports page of the Los Angeles Times concludes that Nike made a big mistake in sinking millions into creating a line of Tiger golf wear that is too funky for older people, too conservative for hip-hoppers -- Tiger, alas, is essentially a man without a market.
The spotlight swung back to him, briefly, in the recent PGA Championship, in which he led on the first day of play with a record-setting score of 66. But other players quickly moved ahead, then eclipsed him, and though Tiger wound up finishing in the top 10, nobody would describe it as anything but a disappointment. All this doomsday is, of course, nonsense to me. Tiger still claims all the stars in my eyes and most of the space of one wall of my office cubicle. One homemade caption taped above a pensive magazine picture of him reads, OOOOOO BABY!! and elicits raised eyebrows from people unacquainted with my obsession. A glossy autographed picture sent to me from his management firm (but he signed it himself, I'm certain) is still tacked in an exalted place above my computer at home, just above postcard shots of my other muses -- James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Lorraine Hansberry, Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov. Bruce I long ago internalized, but that doesn't mean I am not seized with the feral, familiar pangs of what life might be, of what is left, when I hear the opening strains of "Thunder Road." Tiger and I have a long ways yet to travel.