The first half of this post was written for my Creative Writing Non-Fiction class two years ago, well before the controversy began.
His face is frozen intensity. He is the personification of passion; one moment uncontrollably angry and the next punching the air in triumphant joy. His hair, when seen without a hat, is balding slightly at the front. Although it isn’t quite defined, you can see how much sun his head doesn’t receive compared to the rest of his face. His dark brown, short and curly hair is almost always shaped to the specific hat he wears. His African American/Vietnamese skin stands out amongst his coworkers.
“When he was a kid, the other students would tie him up to a fence with chains and start beating him with sticks,” his father informs all the viewers in a documentary. A photo of his Vietnamese mother and African-American father flashes on the screen while some white guy explains its significance. There’s no need for words; this picture informs us all we need to know to his background.
“When he was two years old, I saw him do something I have never seen before; he stopped in the middle of the back swing, switched from a left-handed stance to a right-handed one and swung away,” his father continues about early signs of his son’s success.
“But I knew I had something special when he did something extraordinary: he switched from a left-handed grip to a right-handed one without asking how to do it.”
His facial features weren’t what I paid most of my attention to, but they were very distinct. His eyes were wide like his mother’s and big like his father’s. His head is wide at the top and slightly narrowed as you worked your way to his chin. His smile is rare, only on good shots and victories, but his grimace isn’t. After taking several practice swings, his face goes from calm and collected to deeply introspective with the eyebrows at a slight frown. His pearl-white teeth are clenched in such a way you can see his jaw muscles flex. His ears are really the first thing you notice, but the last to have any emotion. They rise when he smiles and lower when he strikes the ball.
Back in his college days, his body was a toothpick. But ever since he has worked harder than any of his colleagues and he even invented a new way of practicing the game. He’d take his regular eighteen tee shots, eighteen approach shots and thirty six putts, but unlike anyone else, would venture over to the weight room to max out on the bench at nearly 300 pounds. In most of my memories of him, his arms were thick and his upper torso was trim. Many have doubted why he puts so much effort and spends so much time in the weight room, but his actions are proven wise with his 320+ yards per drive average and his 90+ wins. His legs don’t look like legs at all but rather tree trunks that were attached to him, even though his constant slack-wearing style doesn’t reveal them much. I am pretty sure they’d kick him out of the league once they discovered the trees.
“What’s second place? It’s the first loser,” his words reverberate off the walls of my memory and drive me to hit one more ball, take one more putt and try one more chip shot. I’ve watched so many of his tournaments that I no longer need to be reminded of what his swing looks like; slow and steady as the club reaches beyond parallel and then violent and destructive as he unleashes 125 mph worth of energy in a downward swoop at a little white ball. As I practice, I envision not just his swing and his playing strategies, but his emotionless game face as well. The key to defeating your opponents is not just in the score that you shoot, but also in how you don’t reveal what you’re really feeling. It’s most commonly referred to as the poker face; trying to not let your opponents read your mind. He has the perfect poker face. If I want to win anything at all, I must first be able to mimic that poker face.
I would not have gotten far in life had it not been for the fame of this man. His status as not only a top-of-the-world athlete but also as an icon for the racially-marginalized propelled me through the rough spots. My brown skin may not be as dark is his, but it was definitely dark enough to receive comments like “spick” or “beaner” or even sometimes “nigger.” The way that this man held his poker face against the kids beating him up against a fence with sticks years ago was an act of defiance to any social conformity. Civil Disobedience personified. Who is he? His full name is Eldrick Tont Woods, but he is famous with the name Tiger.
He taught me how to golf.
He taught me how to live.
I realize that it’s been roughly a year and a half since Tiger Woods’ controversial lifestyle came to light and that it might be still a taboo subject in the minds of many. But I’ve been thinking of my role-models lately and he definitely comes up. When you grow up without of father, you gravitate towards certain icons as role-models even if you don’t exactly understand why. My case was a little different; I was a brown kid growing up in a white family. Finding my place in it all was a little difficult.
I guess this is why I was such a big Tiger Woods fan in high school. I found some kind of inexplicable comfort in watching such an athlete as Tiger dominate in a predominantly-white crowd. This didn’t encourage a sort of racist attitude in me, as if I was somehow better than my white peers. But it did give me, in an odd way, a sense of confidence; that I could compete in golf, but more so in life.
No, my family isn’t a bunch of racists and if there was any prejudice as I was growing up, I didn’t really notice it. But what I had a difficult time dealing with was looking in the mirror, seeing my brown skin (and face and hair and eyes), and finding no match in any part of my family. It added a slightly different dimension to being adopted than just a different last name; I often felt out place merely by my skin color. I remember picturing myself in all my day dreams as a kid as a white boy with blue eyes and black hair. It wasn’t until about middle school that I really start to accept the fact that my skin color was not white.
Is it just because Tiger Woods has dark skin that I followed him closely going through high school? No; it’s also how he handled it. What he greatly disliked when the question of his skin color came up was the label “African American.” Why? Because his mother is Vietnamese and to label him as only half his bloodline was disrespecting his mother. In a like manner, I am white, too – not just Cherokee. Accepting that bit of truth as well helped me to truly identify with the last name “Cushman” because it wasn’t given to me through my father.
My father’s absence did a lot of things to me. But I think it did a lot of things for me; it forced me to pay attention. I couldn’t ignore my brown skin in a white family. And in answering the “Why” question, I was forced to search. I could have hidden behind the identity of a partier or druggy or something else entirely. But thinking about what those identities did to my parents, I knew it wasn’t something worth doing. My mother has often told me so.
Tiger Woods remains a popular figure and talented athlete in the eyes of many. But for me he stands as something more: A role model in battling issues of race and identity. I don’t think I knew it at the time, but when I was taking notes on his approach to golf, I was also taking notes on his approach to life: full throttle, focused, and as a societal equal. He was marginalized, but he wasn’t defeated. In my battles with depression and searching for my own identity, his story encouraged me to keep going regardless of the pain – to keep that game face strong as the world beat my heart with sticks.