How Tiger Woods's return to Masters Tournament changes golf

Masters Tournament: Tiger Woods's 'transgressions' won't overshadow his gains, a leading golf historian says, but coverage of them shows how the sport has changed.

Hans Deryk/Reuters/File
Tiger Woods walks to the 16th green at August National Golf Club during the second round of the 2008 Masters Tournament in this April 2008 file photo.

Tiger Woodsreturn to golf at the Masters Tournament at Augusta National next month could become one of the biggest media events of the last decade, according to CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus, rivaling even the Obama inauguration.

But in the long view of the long game, Woods's four month-hiatus following a strange Thanksgiving weekend car accident won’t significantly alter the arc of golf history as much as Woods’ race, his humble beginnings, and his bent on democratizing the sport have done, one major US golf historian says.

George Kirsch, the author of last year’s book, “Golf in America,” and a history professor at Manhattan College in Riverdale, N.Y., says his the next edition of his book will include two paragraphs, tops, about the billionaire golfer’s now-famous “transgressions.”

IN PICTURES: Tiger Woods through the years

“He’s an interesting character and there are a lot of themes like social class, race, women’s anger, that journalists and biographers can really dig into and explore,” says Mr. Kirsch in a phone interview. “But for someone who’s writing a long-view history of golf over 100 years, what can I say? I’ll add a paragraph or two on how it shaped his career and not get into all the details.”

That’s not saying Kirsch doesn’t believe it’s a story rich with historical irony, including that a black golfer is now being embraced by a Masters tournament that for years proved near impossible for blacks, Jews, and women to get into, until Lee Elder finally became a member. In another irony, Woods is at least partly a victim of his own mission to democratize golf, which has opened its players up for perusal by the popular and tabloid press.

What Kirsch will write about is how the scandal has affected Woods's endorsements and reputation as his popularity has sunk.

But among golf historians, the gentleman's code that kept the late-night exploits of golfers like Walter Hagen, Tony Lema, and even Arnold Palmer out of the golf columns still resonates in the sport. Tiger's tale, Kirsch says, now opens new lines of inquiry into the extent to which the elite nature of golf bleeds into the scribblings of its chroniclers. (The historian has acknowledged his own struggle with these issues.)

“[The Tiger scandal] raises the question specifically of what is considered appropriate or proper to put into sports writing, which may reflect the elistist cast of [the craft,]” Kirsch says. “But you could say that the mess media and feeding frenzy is more of an expression of the democratization of golf, where what people care more about is Woods’ celebrity status, not his golfing status. The problem is that it’s embarrassing to the [golf] establishment that this whole thing becomes the butt of sex jokes and comedy acts, and that it shows the sort of popular culture side of golf.”

IN PICTURES: Tiger Woods through the years

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