Politics-shy Tiger Woods to be honored by Trump at White House

Washington (AFP) –


During his illustrious career, Tiger Woods has treated politics as he would a menacing sandtrap -- avoiding it if at all possible.

He has hit the links in bipartisan fashion, teeing off with Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and Republicans George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump.

A black superstar in a white-dominated sport, Woods has also generally avoided commenting about race relations in the United States.

But on Monday, Woods will find himself on the biggest political stage there is -- the White House.

And he will be the guest of honor of a president seen by many Americans as racially polarizing.

Trump, an avid golfer and the owner of several golf courses, is to present the 43-year-old Woods with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Though the outspoken Republican has been engaged in a bitter feud with black NBA stars and American football players, he has never expressed anything but unbridled admiration for Woods.

He spoke to Woods, whose father was black and whose mother is of Thai origin, following his epic Masters victory last month and extended his congratulations.

Trump tweeted that he was honoring Woods "because of his incredible Success & Comeback in Sports (Golf) and more importantly, LIFE."

Once upon a time, White House visits by title-winning sports teams were routine, but several franchises -- including the NBA champion Golden State Warriors -- have opted out under Trump to protest his policies.

Woods is not expected to make any such waves.

- 'Unfair' -

Rather than endorsing politicians or decrying racial injustice, Woods has always just let his golf game do the talking.

"People wanted to imagine that Tiger was a social activist, a fighter for racial justice," said Orin Starn, a professor of history and cultural anthropology at Duke University.

"In fact, he's never wanted to be an activist," said Starn, author of "The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal."

"He's been pretty apolitical throughout his career."

Like NBA legend Michael Jordan, a fellow Nike endorser who famously shied away from any political statements, Woods also has commercial interests to protect.

"Whenever he says something about race or America he tends to get all kinds of criticism from all kinds of people," Starn said of Woods.

"I think he also thinks it's not very good for his brand to be identified as a supporter of this person or a supporter of that person," he said.

Starn also said he believed it was "unfair" to expect that Woods is obliged to use his global celebrity as a platform for social activism.

"He's dedicated his whole life to the craft of golf," Starn said. "He gives millions of people great pleasure with his brilliance on the golf course.

"He's done racial pioneering work by virtue of his excellence on the golf course," he said. "I don't think that he owes us anything more than that."

- 'Respect' -

Woods has played golf with Trump on several occasions -- both before and after he took office -- most recently in February at the president's course in Jupiter, Florida.

Asked last year about his relationship with Trump, Woods said: "I've known Donald for a number of years. We've played golf together. We've had dinner together."

He said the important thing was to respect the office of the presidency, regardless of who happened to be occupying the White House.

"No matter who is in the office, you may like, dislike, personality or the politics, but we all must respect the office," Woods said.

Starn said this respect probably stems in part from the military background of Woods' father, Earl, who was a career US Army soldier.

"He's coming out of a military family," he said. "Tiger has this kind of patriotic streak."

Perhaps the closest Woods has ever come to a political gesture was a tribute to veterans he delivered at a 2009 inauguration celebration for Obama, America's first African-American president.

Established by John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is bestowed upon those who have made an "especially meritorious" contribution to US security or national interests, world peace, cultural pursuits or other non-specified endeavors.

It has been awarded to nearly three dozen sports figures including golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, honored by president George W. Bush.

Obama gave the medal in 2014 to Charlie Sifford, the first African American golfer to play on the PGA Tour.