It was pretty obvious two years ago that some did not take kindly to the progress Woods was making. His cool demeanour upset them

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The Independent Online
The first time I saw Tiger Woods live, as against catching glimpses of him on television, was at the 1995 Masters. Making his first appearance at August National, barely 19 years old, invited as the US Amateur champion, he had made a tidy par at the first and was about to play the second.

Already something of a name in golf, Woods had plenty of people rooting for him. Off went the ball on its 300-yard journey and as Woods strode after it a small white boy standing alongside the fairway called out: "Go get 'em, Tiger." This was acknowledged with the smile that is now part of a multi-million dollar industry.

Woods was not the first black man to play in the Masters but none had shown such potential. What effect, I wondered, would its realisation have on golf's white establishment, because it was pretty obvious two years ago that some did not take kindly to the progress Woods was making. Unquestionably, his cool demeanour upset them.

Asked at a news conference what the invitation meant to him, Woods replied: "The opportunity to be on a great golf course with the world's best players." Enough, but not enough for the bystander who muttered: "Just another uppity nigger."

Disgusting but hardly surprising. After all, it is not that long since the only black faces at Augusta National were those of caddies, barmen and locker-room attendants. Lee Trevino was made to feel so uncomfortable because of his Mexican blood that he changed in the car park.

As Woods moved closer to coronation last Sunday he thought about the handful of black players who preceded him in the Masters. "Without them none of this would have been possible," he said. It was exactly the right thing to say if only because his remarkable victory has led, inevitably you may think, to glib assumption.

To suppose that Woods has demolished social barriers in golf is to be in ignorance of prevailing influences, the irrefutable fact that there are clubs in the United States and this country where he is not guaranteed a welcome.

The guiding spirits in golf are for the most part conservative people of at least middle age. Liberal instincts are not strong in them. Social issues come into this but how many clubs have more than one or two black members? How many black players do you see on the European Tour?

If, as seems likely, Woods goes on to dominate golf things may well change, but nobody should hold their breath in anticipation. After all, black success in sport has not altered the lot of black people generally.

The truth, unfortunately, is that it takes a damn sight more than sporting prowess to break down racial discrimination. Going beyond the civil rights movement as an objective, Muhammad Ali helped to internationalise black consciousness as much as anybody. And yet a report issued in the US last week stated that America's schools are becoming as segregated as they were 40 years ago.

What did Carl Lewis's monumental athletic achievements do for the black population of his birthplace, Philadelphia? "He is a credit to his race, the human race," an American sportswriter, the late Jimmy Cannon, said famously about one of the greatest of heavyweight champions, Joe Louis. A fine sentiment and yet said not long before a liberal president, Franklin D Roosevelt, voted against an anti-lynching bill, his eyes on the Southern vote.

It was 10 more years, 50 years ago last Monday, before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball. A highly intelligent man, Robinson was also a hard case who could handle vicious attempts at intimidation. And yet his early death was said to be partly the result of having to deal with ongoing prejudice.

We need to understand that politically correct terminology does little more than obscure racism. Fame to go with the view that he may well be the greatest of all golfers will not provide Tiger Woods with complete immunity from attempts to discredit him. As for changing the face of golf, it is a marvellous idea into which youth may breathe some life but right now it remains a fantasy.