At a press conference to promote next week’s AT&T National at Congressional, where he’ll serve as the tournament’s nonplaying host, Tiger Woods was asked about the building of “learning centers” in his name.
The charity’s aims include spreading the game of golf to new populations of kids. Tiger said he plans to put his next center in an as-yet unannounced location in the D.C. area, and after that he’ll place one “where my mom was from, Thailand.”
That gave rare publicity to the dominant heritage of the dominant sportsman of our age: Oh, right! He’s mostly Asian!
How quaint! But maybe not to everybody.
“We think about that. We all know Tiger’s one of us,” says Som “Andy” Csai, a Thai expat and local restaurateur.
Csai serves as the D.C.-area representative of the Thai Golfers Association. The group, which Csai says has about 60 local members, shares a love for golf and the old homeland—and Tiger.
Csai’s confab gets together for monthly golf tournaments at area golf courses from spring through summer and for social gatherings whenever Tiger’s playing. Csai admits shirking his duties as owner of five restaurants, including Thai Chili downtown and the new Grand Thai in South Riding, to watch TV with fellow association members whenever there’s a major.
“Nobody roots for Phil,” Csai laughs.
By now, Tiger transcends race about as much as he does last names.
Yet Csai confesses that his constituents get kind of bugged about Tiger’s Thai blood no longer getting any attention.
“We all take pride in Tiger’s Thai roots,” say Csai. “That has a lot of impact with our people.”
It seems like forever ago when Tiger’s ethnic makeup was a big deal all over. Well, one part of it, anyway.
In 1997, after he’d won his first Masters, he had to respond to the racial slurs of golf veteran Fuzzy Zoeller.
The self-described “jokester” of the PGA tour, Zoeller told reporters he didn’t want Tiger, who as defending champion would be in charge of the menu at a Masters dinner the following year, “to serve fried chicken…or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve!”
So Tiger went on Oprah to say that Zoeller wasn’t the only guy to dwell on his blackness. He said that as a kid he’d come up with a name for his mix—“Cablinasian”—because he didn’t like folks referring only to his African-Americanism.
For those keeping score, he’s 25 percent Thai and 25 percent Chinese from his mom, Kutilda Woods; 25 percent African-American, 12.5 percent American Indian, and 12.5 percent Caucasian Dutch from his dad, Earl Woods.
Nobody would have twitched, and Zoeller could have kept his Kmart deal and his “jokester” license (though nothing says “Your time has passed!” quite like being labeled a “jokester”), had he gone after Tiger’s Thai blood and said he better not “serve tom yam goong or crispy prawn with chili sauce or whatever the hell they serve!”
Tiger had been going way out of his way to show his multiculti roots before things got Fuzzy. He played tournaments in Thailand as an amateur and in his first couple years on the PGA tour; he still holds the amateur course record at Blue Canyon Country Club in Phuket, which he set in 1994. And he beat Ernie Els in extra holes to win the 1997 Johnnie Walker Classic on the same track.
Tiger’s ascension hasn’t caused the predicted influx of non-white golfers to the pro tour here. Unless you count the ladies: In 2003, when 11 of the top 30 LPGA golfers were Korean, Jan Stephenson assumed the Fuzzy Zoeller role by saying “Asians are killing the tour.” Ten of the Top 20 spots in the current LPGA rankings are filled by Asians. (Whitey still gets to win during the Solheim Cup, the distaff Ryder Cup, where Americans compete against Europeans.)
But Tiger has definitely been a boon to the Thai Golf Association.
Charnnarong Laibangyang, a Southern Californian golf junkie and a national organizer for the Thai Golf Association, says he expects “several hundred” Thai-Americans from every state to make the trip to Santa Clarita, Calif., the association’s national tournament this fall. Csai will be among them.
“We have twice as many golfers now as we did before Tiger,” says Laibangyang, who is hosting the tourney.
Laibangyang says he has tried to get Tiger involved in the Thai tournament in some way, as have hosts of previous national events for the TGA.
But so far, nothing.
“We don’t want much,” he says. “We just would like to have a trophy or something like that from him that we could use for our tournament, the Tiger Woods trophy would make everybody happy. We’ll even make the trophy, but we don’t want to do that without his permission, and we’ve tried going through his mom to get that, but we’ve got no response. Nobody Thai knows how to get to Tiger.”
Tiger trophy or no, Csai will still enter the national TGA events, and his PGA loyalties will remain the same.
“Tiger’s a busy man. He can do what he wants,” says Csai. “Tiger’s still our guy.”