His talent plus nerve equals potential to surpass even the feats of Jack Nicklaus and dwarf what anyone has made from the game

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The Independent Online
It is not that long ago since the member of a golf club in this country put forward its principal virtues as follows: no blacks, no jews, no catholics, and very little encouragement for women.

When you think of how much Semtex there appears to be hanging around in the world it's a wonder somebody hasn't blown the place up, because what we are talking about here is deep-rooted racial, religious and sexual prejudice, which is still all too common in golfing circles.

For obvious reasons, no club goes public with this but, bet your life, some continue to operate a hidden agenda, meaning that unwanted applicants for membership are discouraged from putting their names forward. In any number of cases black players have simply been headed off at the pass.

Recent exciting news from the United States served to bring rotten discrimination into sharper focus. It was that the black American golf prodigy, Tiger Woods, had won the Las Vegas Invitational in only his fifth week on the professional circuit.

So what will golf's bigots make of the 20-year old Californian who this week stands 75th in the world rankings, a top 100 place achieved in record time? Here, possibly, is the next golfing superstar. From finishing 60th in his first professional tournament, Woods improved to 11th, fifth and third before defeating Davis Love III last Sunday at the first play-off hole.

Talent plus nerve equals potential to surpass even the feats of Jack Nicklaus and dwarf what anyone has ever made from the game. Three times the US amateur champion, when Woods took off as a professional he was guaranteed $40m (pounds 26m) by Nike over five years. Few will be surprised if his career earnings exceed $5m before his 25th birthday.

And yet there are golf clubs in the US where Woods knows he is not welcome. He knows that as Lee Elder and Calvin Peete knew it, too. Yes, even as the swarthy-featured Lee Trevino knew it. Prejudice, concealed expediently during tournaments but never far beneath the surface.

When Woods made his first appearance in the Masters last year some considered him to be less than sufficiently humbled by the invitation. They wanted to hear more from him than that Augusta National is a marvellous golf course and that it was a thrill to be in the company of great players. Make no mistake, there were those who wanted Woods to touch his forelock.

It serves to make the fulfilment of Woods's tremendous potential all the more desirable. Certainly, I like to think, the effect of such a breakthrough would be enormous in a game that is still plagued by the most repugnant of attitudes.

A healthy sign is that the galleries following Woods grow ever larger. No wonder. It's a damn sight more than just the novelty of his nascent fame, the publicity that surrounds him. Above all else, typical of sport today, the spectators thrill to his quite astonishing power. "Comes from the wide arc of his swing," the British former tournament player, Warren Humphreys, said last when working for Sky television.

In common with everyone who saw it, Humphreys gasped when Woods sent his ball 300 yards with a three-wood, all carry. "Astonishing," he said. But there is more to winning tournaments than distance. There is the touch, judgement and nerve that persuades any number of Woods's contemporaries that he is exceptional.

The most important racial breakthrough in American sport, probably in sport anywhere, came almost half a century ago when Jackie Robinson broke the colour bar in Major League baseball. But long after, when Robinson was at the height of his fame with the Brooklyn Dodgers, white faces were turned against him.

Woods will experience nothing so strikingly evident of racial discrimination in sport. But it still exists. It exists in country clubs and golf's inner circle. It exists in the minds of prejudiced people who must view Woods's sensational progress with a great deal of trepidation. The best player in the world a black man? Spare us the thought, you can hear them saying.

Fortunately, it appears that Woods has the temperament to go with his great ability. The pressure is there, it is not just, but the trick will be to go on winning. "Go get 'em, Tiger," a young white boy called out to Woods at last year's Masters. Woods smiled across at him. It was lovely.