Back in February, I was probably the last person left on earth who had trouble identifying Tiger Woods, the golfing phenomenon who won the Master's tournament in 1997 at the age of 21. I've spent the last decade in the sheltered world of environmental politics and the only sport I really know about is the blood sport commonly known as an election.
But I've always had a secret desire to go Hollywood, and an editor at Icon magazine decided to try me out by having me interview Tiger Woods' father, Earl, reasoning that a bona fide reporter might get him to say something interesting.
The night before the interview, I went to a local Border's Books cafe and speed-read -- but didn't buy -- the most recent of Earl Woods' autobiographies. I was relieved to find there was more than advice about improving your swing. With a Thai mother and a black father who also claims Chinese and Native American blood, Tiger Woods is the sports equivalent of a Benetton ad. And his father had a lot to say. Earl's book, "Playing Through," forced me to think more carefully about the racism faced by African-Americans of my parents' generation, who came before black power but after the worst of Jim Crow.
And Earl Woods was a jazz fan.
OK, I thought. I can do this.
Earl was a good interview, wittier than I expected, a bit pompous at times, but very intelligent. We talked for about two hours on the telephone.
For the article, I selected quotes that emphasized the themes I found most interesting: the creative similarities between jazz and golf, and Earl's experiences with racism compared to Tiger's milder ones, and a funny -- I thought -- riff on the awful weather in Scotland, golf's heartland, which Woods insisted was a worse place to play the game than Africa.
I turned the piece in and I forgot about the whole thing.
That is, until Monday, when I got a frantic message from a reporter from Golf World. The magazine had zeroed in on the Scotland joke, which it deemed racist. Here's what Earl said about Scotland (Icon tightened it up a tad):
"That's for white people. It's the heart of golf for people who came from there. It sucks as far as I'm concerned. It is the sorriest weather and I've made the public statement that people had better be happy that the Scots lived there instead of soul brothers. The game of golf would have never been invented. We would have been inside listening to jazz and we wouldn't have been stupid enough to go out in that weather and play a silly-ass game and freeze yourself to death. We would have been inside laughing and joking with rum and stuff. Now, Africa ... I played golf in Africa and I knew I was home."
Golf World wanted to equate his remarks with those of Fuzzy Zoeller, who became a sports world pariah in 1997 for joking that Tiger Woods would serve fried chicken and collard greens at the next Master's dinner.
I knew about as much about Fuzzy Zoeller as I had known about Tiger Woods. But I had to say something, because Earl was denying that he said this to me; in fact, he was denying that he had even given the interview. Of course, I had the tape to prove it.
The next thing I knew, I was giving a sound bite. "Earl Woods has paid his dues," I told the Golf World guy. "He's entitled to crack a joke."
Golf World's piece closed with my quote and the following kicker: "Isn't that what Fuzzy Zoeller said?"
Oy. Over at Icon, the publicity folks were going into overdrive. "You sounded great," one told me as I cringed on the other side of the telephone line. "Believe me, this is my business. I've got USA Today calling you."
"But I want to talk about context," I said feebly.
I felt sorry for Woods, until the publicity guy reminded me that he was attacking my professional credibility and lying to save his ass at my expense. Or maybe he genuinely didn't remember talking to me. Maybe.
I listened to the tape I'd made of our conversation. After Earl finished his Scotland rap, I heard myself mentioning that he was awfully plainspoken for someone who had done 20 years in the military. I think I even called him "sir."
"That's my biggest problem," was Woods' response. "I'm honest. I tell the truth. And people can't handle that." He actually went on about this for some time.
OK, I thought. Maybe I'm pissed off enough to ride this little PR pony out the gate. After all, I have a book to promote. About an hour later, I lobbed off a quote to USA Today. This one wasn't quite as dumb. Instead, it was revoltingly self-serving, and syntactically moronic. "Journalists tend to oversimplify race," I said. "This article didn't do that. It's unfortunate that Earl Woods, a guy who's paid a lot of dues, feels that he has to duck and cover because of a media feeding frenzy."
Whoa, baby. Block that metaphor.
The so-called feeding frenzy abated by afternoon, when the East Coast closed down. When I actually had time to think about it, the whole thing seemed farcical.
First, what Fuzzy Zoeller said was racist -- and it wasn't funny. What Earl said wasn't racist -- and it was funny. Earl wasn't saying anything bad about Scots. He was just saying that Scotland has lousy weather. Does anyone except for seagulls and lobsters consider this debatable?
If anything, Earl's comments stereotyped blacks. But Richard Pryor and Chris Rock have proved that blacks can say things about blacks that whites simply can't.
The tone of the Golf World story was that of angry white frat boys who blame affirmative action for their own mediocrity.
But the truly lousy part is that the subtlety in my conversation with Earl Woods was lost. Like typical strangers, we talked about the weather. Earl already knew from our conversation -- about New York, about jazz -- that like him, I wouldn't be caught dead playing golf in that freezing Scottish rain. I'd be inside listening to jazz and drinking rum. And, like him, I'd rather be in Africa, anyway. He was being charming by including me in the company of "soul brothers."
I was only slightly mad at Earl, even though he'd essentially called me a liar. I kind of liked the guy when I interviewed him. Plus, I thought his remarks were innocuous.
I also had the slightly uncomfortable feeling that I was benefitting from the whole thing by having my name splashed all over the media. My editors at Icon were even talking about sending me to interview a movie star. Hey, I thought, even a serious reporter can benefit from a good old-fashioned media shit-storm.
Of course, I hadn't completely abandoned my environmental roots. I had asked Earl if he thought golf courses should be urged to use reclaimed water, but his answer hadn't made it into the piece.
"Why not?" he answered. "Just don't put the golf ball in your mouth."
Right about now, I suspect that Earl may be wishing he put a golf ball in his own mouth, rather than make that joke about Scotland.