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The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal by Orin Starn

Reviewed by David J. Leonard | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Friday, October 19, 2012.

For some golf is a game; for others it is leisure. Golf, at its core, is about mastery; it’s about fantasy; it’s about fulfillment of the possibility of greatness. It is about that hole-in-one at the local public course or the bullet drive that covered 300+ yards. Golf provides the fulfillment of a myriad of “fantasies.” With his new book, The Passion of Tiger Woods, Orin Starn leads on a journey not to Pebble Beach or the courses of Hawaii, not into these fantasies playgrounds, but into the treacherous world and real-life drama that he describes as “Tigergate.”

Starn starts his discussion with a foray into the sociology of golf, highlighting the emotional appeal of the game. Describing golf as the “last chance to do “childish things”and as a cheap replacement for masculine yearning for outdoor adventures, Starn locates golf’s appeal within the mental stimulation and imagination afforded by golf’s immense challenges. It’s appeal rests not with improved cardiovascular health, the camaraderie of pickup basketball or soccer, or even tradition (fathers and sons bonding), but with the mental stimulation; it appeal rests with its similarity to a video game rather than basketball or soccer. “The game’s most elementary lure ... is that flush of satisfaction and even inner delight that comes from a good shot.” The popularity of the game that Mark Twain once described as a “good walk spoiled” rests with the prospect of making “a twisting twenty-five foot put curving into the hole; a cleaver escape from under the tree.” While “none of us will ever know the ecstasy of running as fast as Usain Bolt or cutting through the water like Michael Phelps,” every once in a while, “even a rotten golfer will hit a shot as magnificent as if it had been hit by Tiger Woods” (15).

It is no wonder that golf is one of the most popular games despites its cost. While not at the levels of baseball, football, or even NASCAR and basketball, golf is tremendously popular as a spectator sport and a leisure activity. With over “17,000 golf courses, covering an area the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined” (XV), golf may not be America’s national pastime it might America’s most prominent and important hobby. Golf is a national obsession, at least within certain (white; male; middle and upper-class) segments of the American populace.

This analysis isn’t simply an interesting examination of golfing cultures but one that provides an important backdrop for understanding the rise and fall of Tiger Woods. The popularity of golf, its cultural meaning, the ascendance of celebrity culture, and the increased power of new media all contributed to his ultimate tumble before the nation.

Starn identifies the media spectacle surrounding Woods as evidence of the hegemony of the scandal industrial complex. “Now scandal has become a multibillion dollar industry. Talk shows and trash television, glossy magazines, supermarket tabloids, and gossip blogs power this vast and viral entertainment complex” (45). Identifying “Tigergate” as the perfect storm, Starn argues that the media obsession and sensationalism embodied in the“celebritaization” of modern athletes. Yet, his discussion goes beyond the missed placed priorities of today’s tabloid media circus to highlight Tiger Woods’ specific place within the American landscape.

Like the allure of the game itself, the rise and fall of Tiger Woods is equally about fantasy, about lost hope in a symbol of a post-racial America. The passion for Tiger Woods and the anger resulting from his martial disrepair reflects the fantasies surrounding America’s most prominent multiracial citizen. “Woods, America’s multicultural son, is a seductive element in a national image archive figured on the paradoxical claims about the nation,” writes C.L. Cole and David Andrews. “While African American basketball players are regularly charged with violating national core values, Woods has become revered for his cultural heritage and cultural literacy” (p. 37). As America’s multicultural son, as America’s symbol of racial progress and post-raciality, his indiscretions and the subsequent reactions not only put in question the declining significance of race, but the interest, anger, and fallout highlights how Woods did not simply betray his wife but the agreed upon narrative surrounding Woods, American exceptionalism, and the march toward racial progress.

Highlighting the general sentiment amongst online commentators, and that emanating from the media in general, which consistently imagined Woods as one of “the last of the good ones,” as different from contemporary (black) athletes, Starn concludes that the emotional nature of the discourse highlights Woods’ meaning within the national landscape.

Many Internet posters seemed most disturbed by the hypocrisy of what they perceived to have been Tiger’s selling of a false imagine. Tarquinis1 compared Woods to an infamous Ponzi schemer: “He’s professionally marketed himself to a worldwide audience as much more than a talented athlete but as a descent man, a family man who loved his wife and children . . . . Just how is this fundamentally different from Bernie Maddof? Professionally marketed frauds, for the sake of a literal ocean of financial reward . . . . Many of Tiger’s former fans believed he had fallen altogether rom the pantheon. They saw the golfer now as a “sexual psycho,” “uber cad,”or as in one’s poster thesaurus of invective, “arrogant, spoiled, bad tempered, childish, immature, foul-mouthed, whiny, disloyal, condescending, infantile, repugnant, loathsome, abominable, detestable, offensive, despicable, abhorrent, and damnable” (61).

While potentially an outlier in its anger and its verbosity, Starn makes the case that these posts, and the online discourse general, are not only a mirror into larger societal sentiments, but is in fact a better gauge. He concludes that “racial anxiety and distrust often find most direct expressions in the surreptitious, off-stage arenas of our private thoughts … or most accessible to the anthropologist, an anonymous post on some blog, comment board, or chat room.” (86-87).

Starn, thus, concludes that the fall of Tiger Woods and the nature of the demonization he experienced reflects the waning appeal of his narrative – the fantasy of Woods could no longer deliver. “The amazing success of this young brown-skinned man in a formerly white sports seemed to support the familiar Fox News, Rush-Limbaugh-style view that the only real impediments to black advancement are black laziness, broken families, or … inferior genes.” Starn sees the fallout as resulting from anger at this lost narrative: “When white fans cheered for Tiger, it sometimes felt as if they were also congratulating themselves demonstrating their own enlightened racial good will be embracing a golfer of color” (p. 73). Tiger took this away, leading to ample anger and bitterness, highlighting that he did not just cheat on his partner but he cheated on his fans and the narrative surrounding his ascendance into the national fabric.

Tigergate also revealed longstanding anxiety over black male sexuality, opposition to black-white sexual relations, and the hegemony of racial stereotypes. It was not just sexual infidelity from an uber sports star in an era of tabloid journal and online spectacles, but all of those things from a black male engaged in sex with white women. From photoshopped pictures of Tiger with Snoop as dueling pimps to jokes about Tiger’s penis, Tigergate was fueled by and gave life to longstanding ideologies surrounding black male sexuality. “Tiger’s fall from grace – in particular, the expiration of his exemption from racist hated and stereotyping” was crystal clear with ubiquitous focus on his penis and his sexual prowess. “Tiger was cut down to a single body part by this coarse modern variant of the primordial racist trope of black savagery: the big black phallus” (p. 91).

The power of Starn’s narrative rests with its ability to explain Tiger’s cultural power (as greatest golfer and as participant in most notorious celebrity scandal) for golf fans and nonfans alike. I don’t really like golf; I like Tiger. I would agree with George Carlin, who once described golf as less appealing than “watching flies fuck.” They might as well rename the PGA (Professional Golfer’s Association) the TGW – Tiger’s Golf World. Despite his recent difficulties on and off the course, my relationship with golf begins and ends with Tiger Woods. For me, my interest in golf and my love for Tiger has only increased since Tigergate. He has faced endless criticism shaping my hope that he will soon be able proverbial middle finger to his haters. It isn’t about redemption but rather seeing media critics, and bitter fans choke on their wars. With each victory, with each brilliant chip shot and putt and with each step closer to history, Tiger is finding his way to silence the haters.

Golf is not simply a game; Tiger Woods is not simply a golfer; Tigergate was not simply a scandal. Orin Starn makes this clear highlight the many ways that golf, Woods, and Tigergate offer a mirror into larger social, cultural and racial realities. So next time you find yourself rooting for or against Tiger, or cracking joke about Eldridge Woods, remember, it is never just a game or joke. Without basketball, my summer sports TV watching often centers around golf. More precisely, without the NBA, I find myself watching Tiger Woods. When he is competing, I watch golf; when he is atop the leaderboard, Tiger Woods changes my schedule in part because golf is never just a game.

***

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness was just published by SUNY Press.

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