BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Tiger Woods turned down the President of the United States once. This was in 1997, shortly after Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes at age 21. He was the hottest story in sports—hotter than Michael Jordan, who was about to win his fifth championship—and everybody wanted a piece of him. President Bill Clinton invited Woods to Shea Stadium celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. Tiger said no.
Woods’ reasons for saying no were not entirely clear—he had a previously scheduled Mexican vacation, he was put off that Clinton only asked him after he won the Masters, he felt weird about being held up as the great African-American hope when he did not identify himself simply as African-American. (Woods, who is part Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian, coined himself “Cablinasian.”) But he was criticized for not going.
A lot has changed in 22 years, for Woods and for the country. Last week, Woods visited the White House, which most Americans agree should be a great honor, to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which virtually all Americans agree is a great honor. This time, he was criticized for going, and he has been criticized for having a business and personal relationship with President Donald Trump.
You can interpret these two bookends of his public life however you’d like. You can say he shunned a Democratic president and has embraced a Republican one. I don’t quite see it that way. I think he shunned a president when he was young, socially awkward and uncomfortable with public life, and he has embraced a president now that he is older, more comfortable with himself, and more open. The politics of those presidents were secondary.
We live in fraught political times, as you may have noticed. Many of us view others’ acts through the lens of our own political beliefs. Nick Bosa supports the president and people wonder if he is fit to sack quarterbacks in liberal San Francisco. Every team that wins a championship has to make a decision about visiting the White House, knowing full well that it’s not just a visit to the White House for other people.
Woods represents a different kind of public figure. He has no interest in public political stances. He never has. This may be partly a business decision, but it is also a personal preference: Woods just doesn’t spout that many public opinions about anything. He was asked Tuesday if he would ever have his own TV show, like LeBron James’ The Shop on HBO, and he cut off the question: “No. No. No. No show. No.” He has a warm relationship with Trump that preceded the presidency.
You may wish he said more, and you may wish that the “more” was exactly in line with your own political views. You are, of course, well within your rights to want that.
The mistake with Woods—and with a lot of athletes—is assuming he is making political statements when he isn’t.
Here are three non-political acts that could be interpreted as political. Woods chose to live in Florida as an adult, instead of his native California, because Florida has no state income tax. He named his son, Charlie, after Charlie Sifford, the pioneering African-American golfer. And when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, here was Woods, to CNBC: “I think it's absolutely incredible. He represents America. He’s multiracial. I was hoping it would happen in my lifetime. My father was hoping it would happen in his lifetime, but he didn't get to see it. I’m lucky enough to have seen a person of color in the White House … he would have cried. Absolutely. No doubt about it.” He spoke at the Lincoln Memorial when Obama was inaugurated, but he did not really say much about Obama. He praised the military. His father was in the Army Special Forces.
Woods has never mentioned Trump in any of his comments about the medal of freedom or the trip, other than to thank him briefly. When a New York Times reporter asked about him about his relationship with Trump last year, Woods replied, “Well, I’ve known Donald for a number of years. We’ve played golf together, and we’ve had dinner together. So, yeah, I’ve known Donald pre-presidency and, obviously, during his presidency.”
This is … factual. Like most prominent golfers, Woods knew Trump before he became a politician, when he was just a famous TV star and businessman who was involved in golf. If Woods has strong views on the Trump administration, he hasn’t shared them publicly. You can say he is scared, conservative or weak. I think he would say he is a golfer.