New book explores Tiger Woods' collapse

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

While golf, as Mark Twain said, may be "a good walk spoiled," Orin Starn's new book, "The Passion of Tiger Woods," is the converse: a potentially foul trek through personal and societal abominations redeemed by author insight. With golf more than just the scenery.

An in-depth study of the sport's exclusionary reputation, the celebrity industry, racial stereotypes, marketing and media avarice, Starn's treatment of the Woods scandal delivers layers of perspective to what, on the surface, was just another cheap tabloid feeding frenzy.

A Duke University anthropology professor, Starn sees the Woods story as "a research mother lode for anyone interested in the bizarre funhouse and horror show of 21st-century American life," he writes in the book's prologue. "Sports have become too gigantic a part of global life for anyone to ignore, especially those of us who are supposed to be deciphering the workings of culture and society for a living."

And so he applies his social scientist's tools -- as well as his experience as a five-handicap golfer -- to a cultural debate that is both enlightening and a bit unsettling.

Among other issues, Starn questions notions that Woods had become proof of a "post-racial" America. Upon crashing from the status as a "golf god," apparently beyond barriers based on skin color -- "Does Zeus have a race?" Starn asks -- Woods quickly lost his "mystique" among competitors and was widely reviled in online chats with racial slurs.

The author details the incongruous reality that Woods simultaneously could be both his sport's "golden goose" and the only black American on the current PGA tour; that he could draw both whites and blacks to golf, then trigger some of the most outdated racial biases with the news of his serial adultery.

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In "The Passion of Tiger Woods," major gaps are filled regarding golf's well-known historic reluctance to accept minorities. Of course, private clubs routinely banned blacks, women and Jews, but who knew of the Greensboro Six, a half-dozen black men who walked onto that North Carolina city's course in December of 1955 and completed a round of play before being arrested for trespassing? Their action, Starn notes, came five years before high-profile lunch-counter sit-ins and 10 years before Martin Luther King's march on Selma. Who knew that boxing champion Joe Louis was the first black player to compete in a PGA tournament, at the 1952 San Diego Open?

Starn weaves such facts into the realities of racial politics and racial identity -- old cliches and prejudices that blacks are "natural" athletes and sexual predators -- that resurfaced in the Woods narrative. And how Woods alienated himself both from some blacks and whites by defining himself as "Cablinasian," given the white, black and Native American heritage of his father and his Thai mother.

This well-researched treatise offers thoroughly reasonable explanations why the personal failings of a sports figure were played as the leading news story over war and global warming and the collapsing economy. American obsessions with gossip, sex and the rich-and-famous all came into play when Woods, slickly marketed as a wholesome family man of supernatural powers, was hoisted with his own petard following his Thanksgiving night car crash.

Starn fully understands the frivolous nature of trying to knock a little white ball into a hole. He virtually giggles at Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson's hypothesis that humans have a "golf gene" that disposed us to an enchantment of flying projectiles among grasslands and panoramic views. Plenty of people, Starn points out, find golf boring and a waste of time.

But he also argues, convincingly, that the game "suits the spirit of capitalism," and he references no less than Freud in considering the addiction of continuing to replicate simple pleasure, such as the rare perfect shot that feeds golf's "psychology of possibility, hope, and the fresh start."

All of this matters, Starns demonstrates, because of the "peculiar place" of sports (and, specifically, golf) in our society, factoring into Woods becoming "a walking reality show." And a mirror on modern American values and anxieties.

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