Should Woods carry the black man's burden?
It was an unforgettable image. Tiger Woods was flailing like a weekend duffer. He grimaced as the wind and rain whipped into his usually stoic face.
He shot a disastrous 81.
That was the third day of the British Open last month, when the world's best golfer lost his chance to win all four major events in the same year the Grand Slam of golf.
But Woods's struggles went beyond the links. Before the tournament, he commented on the fact that Augusta National Golf Club the site of the Masters tournament he had won earlier in the year had not admitted any female members. Woods said it was "unfortunate," but "that's just the way it is" a remark that disappointed many fans.
Could Tiger's first major off-course distraction have caused the breakdown in his game? Although it is impossible to tell, it's possible Tiger's two "failures" might be linked.
How Woods recovers will be one of the subtexts at the PGA Championship this weekend at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. If he wins, which is expected, the pressure will be lifted almost immediately. If he loses, it could intensify.
Regardless, fans and pundits will continue to ask what is the appropriate social role of an athlete so dominant that he has almost single-handedly produced a revival in his sport.
Moreover, because Tiger Woods belongs to a racial minority, does that mean he is obliged to stick up for other minority groups, even if they are groups to which he does not belong?
According to Ronald Kann, a psychologist in Oakhurst, N.J., who heads the International Society for Sports Psychiatry, Woods has already fumbled his first attempt at answering these questions. In doing so, he perhaps allowed an initial "failure" to disrupt his performance in competition a trap that is common among elite athletes.
"When it's expected that he will do everything right and he comes up short, that's a defeat right there," Kann says. "This is a person who is not used to losing or looking bad. Did that subconsciously throw off his game [at the British Open]? It could have."
There are reasons, however, to believe that Woods may have already pushed the Augusta incident aside. He shot extremely well the day after he bombed at the British Open. And last week he won the Buick Open, a tune-up for the PGA Championship.
Moreover, he issued a new statement on his website that was less blasé toward Augusta's lack of female members (although critics said it still didn't go far enough).
"Would I like to see women members?" he asked. "Yes, that would be great, but I am only one voice. I'm not even a regular member."
It has always been difficult to get inside Tiger's head. This is a characteristic that clearly gives him an advantage over other golfers. Part of his success is due to his ability to rein in his emotions. He seems more comfortable than anyone else under pressure, and when he leads going into the final round, he almost never loses.
It is a characteristic he shares with Michael Jordan, who is perhaps the greatest clutch basketball player of all time. Like Woods, Jordan has tried to keep his personal life secret and stay out of politics. But racism is not a hot-button issue in basketball, which is dominated by black athletes. This took the onus off Jordan.
Tiger, however, is a rare man of color in a sport that has traditionally been nearly lily-white.
Everyone has their view about the obligations of professional athletes. Some say Woods is strictly a golfer, and his only duty is to perform at his best. He is not a social activist, the argument goes, nor is he a civil rights leader.
Others, such as columnist Michael Wilbon of The Washington Post, argue that Woods must eventually become involved in social issues because of his fame.
"There's a social responsibility that comes with being black in America, regardless of the profession, and that obligation increases exponentially with stature," Wilbon wrote in a recent column. "They're rules adopted out of necessity, even desperation, by the subculture we as black folks inhabit.
"One of the rules is you speak up, even if it means taking some lumps."
Wilbon also pointed out how it would be unfair to expect Woods to have a fully developed social conscience at such a young age he's 26 especially considering that he has spent most of his life on a golf course.
Already, Woods has won eight major championships and 33 PGA Tour events. It's likely that he will shatter every record in the golf record books before he is done.
Perhaps the only other contemporary example of a young athlete dominating his sport so much is Mike Tyson the boxer. Tyson, of course, spun out of control by the time he reached his mid-20s.
Woods is clearly no Mike Tyson. He's well educated and comes from a stable family. He's self-aware, and he's given something back to the community by establishing the Tiger Woods Foundation, which promotes health, education, and welfare of children.
"He seems fairly well centered," says Richard Lustberg, a psychologist on Long Island, N.Y., who has worked with several pro athletes. "He's already held up under extreme pressure. He seems to love playing golf, and he certainly loves to win."
Lustberg says he firmly believes that Woods does not need to become involved in social issues. Rather, he need only "play the best golf he possibly can."
Yet, there are clearly examples of athletes taking a strong stand on social issues while at the same time performing at the highest level. Sometimes the two can complement each other.
One such athlete is Gary Player, the South African golfer who started winning championships in the '60s and who at the time was among the most popular athletes in his country.
Although he initially supported his country's apartheid system that discriminated against blacks, he eventually matured and became an outspoken critic of racism. In a direct challenge to his country's government, he helped bring an African-American golfer, Lee Elder, to South Africa for an unprecedented series of integrated matches.
Later in his career, Player would say that he was prouder of what he did to fight apartheid than of what he did on the golf course.
Whether Woods's career will chart a similar course remains to be seen.