Tiger Woods’ ‘Golfweek’ noose cover, the lynching comment that led to it and more
The media struggled to deal with a black man dominating the white game of golf
The glisten on Tiger Woods’ invincible armor hadn’t yet faded when Golfweek published its now infamous “noose” cover. It was January 2008.
Woods was then the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world, a ranking he held for a record 683 weeks. He was nearly two years away from the sex scandal that jettisoned his career, his image and his very aura. And this was still six months before his final major championship, the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California. It was there that Woods pulled off what former caddie Steve Williams called “the most heroic thing” he’d ever seen on a golf course. The clicking of Woods’ bones rubbing together, as he played on a bad knee and broken leg, was unavoidable.
This was Woods at his most vulnerable, his most human and, conversely, his most superhuman. He was the greatest in the world because he was the scariest. No blueprint existed for cracking Woods’ code. He was a magician with an iron. An executioner with a putter. Contenders threw rocks at the throne — few connected, and when they did, he only grew stronger and more bloodthirsty for the disintegration of any semblance of competition as he closed in on Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors.
Defeating Woods wasn’t impossible. It had been done before. But it was next to impossible, especially on the game’s biggest greens. Conversations about the extent of Woods’ mastery were common. One conversation in particular ignited a controversy, which, in turn, ignited a firestorm.
Jan. 4, 2008 — At the second round of the Mercedes-Benz Championship in New Orleans, Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman, the network’s first female anchor, and analyst Nick Faldo offered suggestions on how to challenge Woods’ dominance. “To take Tiger on, maybe they should just gang up on him for a while,” Faldo said. “Lynch him in the back alley,” Tilghman responded.
Jan. 8, 2008 — The Golf Channel issues a statement saying it regrets Tilghman’s comment and that she’d already apologized to Woods.
Jan. 9, 2008 — Woods — who, via his agent, characterizes Tilghman as a friend — accepts her apology, saying, “We know unequivocally that there was no ill intent in her comments.” Golf Channel suspends Tilghman for two weeks.
Jan. 10, 2008 — The Rev. Al Sharpton says Tilghman should be fired, citing the well-known history of the word “lynch.” Sharpton likened it to calling for a woman to be raped, or for a Jewish-American to be placed in a gas chamber.
Jan. 14, 2008 — Golfweek, not affiliated with the Golf Channel, hits shelves. Almost immediately, the cover becomes an inescapable topic of discussion on TV and editorial op-eds. The cover, a response to a controversy, became an even bigger controversy.
Jan. 20, 2008 — Dave Seanor, Golfweek’s vice president and editor, is fired.
The issue featured four pages of news and commentary stories revolving around Tilghman’s comments, including a column supporting Tilghman and saying the situation should be kept in context. Another editorial asked why the magazine was devoting the level of attention it was to the story. And lastly, along with the editorial was a cartoon of Sharpton giving a noose to Golf Channel employees while staring into a hole of thin ice that Tilghman presumably fell through.
All that said, conversation still focused on its incendiary cover. Jeff Babineau, who replaced Seanor, said in an interview with Dan Patrick the week the cover hit shelves that the magazine “couldn’t say sorry enough.” He wished the magazine had gone with its alternate cover of Australian phenom Jason Day. But, by then, Golfweek’s cover had usurped Tilghman’s original comments. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem — the PGA was then in the second year of a 15-year partnership with the Golf Channel — unsurprisingly doubled down on the Golfweek criticism, continuing to shift blame from one side to the other. Tilghman’s remarks were “inappropriate and unfortunate,” but the magazine’s practices proved outrageous and irresponsible and reeked of tabloid journalism. Then-Sen. Barack Obama, at a presidential campaign stop in Pittsburgh, reacted by saying the cover exhibited “a lack of sensitivity” to “profound historical and racial issues” and “there’s nothing funny about a noose.” Turner Sports’ Charles Barkley, however, tapped into the deeper issue behind both controversies. Like Woods, an admitted friend of Tilghman, the Hall of Fame power forward questioned Golfweek’s motives.
“I don’t want to hear that the golf industry’s biggest problem is something Kelly Tilghman said. If Golfweek really wanted to examine racism, as the editor said he did, they would look at golf and country clubs excluding Jews and black folks,” Barkley said. “Look at their restrictive policies and explain why the only black folks you see at most clubs are working in the kitchen … just like it was 100 years ago.”
To understand the triggers of the word “lynch” and the image of a noose is to understand lynching as domestic terrorism. A 2015 report by the Equal Justice Initiative determined that 3,959 black men and women were lynched from 1877-1950 throughout a dozen Southern states. Lynchings largely stemmed from a range of causes: distorted fear of interracial sex, the desire to dominate the black community at large, and sheer public spectacle. Tuskegee Institute records indicate 11.5 percent of all lynchings resulted from “trivial offenses” such as registering to vote, testifying against a white man or peeping into a window. Whites often gathered picnic-style at lynchings as black men and women were hung and/or burned alive. Lynchings reinforced the efficiency and tyranny of Jim Crow.
Tilghman, for the most part, was largely given a pass by her media colleagues for the on-air gaffe. However off-base, it seemed an in-the-moment comment that she apologized for. She was disciplined, and in the years since she has not committed a similar transgression. Golfweek, on the other hand, as a media organization, appeared to have a premeditated course of action. Adding a visual to Tilghman’s comments came off as more salt on a wound than launchpad for conversation. Michael Wilbon wrote for The Washington Post in 2008, “[The magazine] had more than a week to think about its cover choice, days and days to assess the potential reaction, and still blew it.”
In an even more heated column from the Post two days after Wilbon’s, Leonard Shapiro took Seanor — “a good man” who “lost his job” — to task. The inside of the issue, he noted, did little to move the needle. Among other things, he suggested Seanor and Golfweek dropped the ball by not reporting that at the time there were no black women on the LGPA Tour (In 2015, Sadena Parks and Cheyenne Woods became the fifth and sixth black female tour members since the organization’s founding in 1950.) Or the near-nonexistent representation of black boys and girls on the junior circuits. Shapiro also suggested examining golf’s governing boards. “In the 2007 PGA Tour media guide, for example, there are 15 officials pictured in the list of employees in the office of the commissioner and the tour’s executive committee. Every one is a white male.” His criticism also included the Golf Channel and the golf divisions at NBC and CBS: “hardly a bright and shining example of diversity.”
The Kelly Tilghman, Golfweek and Tiger Woods saga actually had very little to do with Kelly Tilghman, Golfweek and Tiger Woods. From the moment Woods became a household name 20 years ago this month at The Masters, race has been the elephant in the passenger seat during his relentless ascension. A child prodigy who lived up to the hype around a game where he rarely saw anyone who looked like him or his father, Woods controversially embraced his mixed heritage, telling Oprah Winfrey in 1997 he was “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian). But the world saw him as black. “You know the world is going crazy,” Chris Rock once quipped, “when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy.”
Although Woods never associated himself solely with blackness, golf certainly saw him as such. The Tilghman and Golfweek moments were actually a familiar phenomenon. Most infamously, in 1997, golfer Fuzzy Zoeller poked at racial stereotypes, calling Woods “little boy.” Another Zoeller suggestion: “Pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year … or collard greens, or whatever the hell they serve.”
Nearly a decade later, Tilghman is still with the Golf Channel, viewed by many as a trailblazer for women in golf. Golfweek magazine is still in monthly circulation. And Woods, albeit a shadow of his former self, is still playing golf. And still the game’s most polarizing personality, too.
But golf itself? It remains a largely segregated sport. One constantly plagued by the term “first black” nearly 20 years after Woods’ rise to superstardom and an influx of popularity among people of color during the 2000s. Golf remains haunted by Clifford Roberts’ venomous 1975 moment: “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white and caddies will be black.” Roberts was the co-founder of Augusta National Golf Club, where The Masters is held annually — in fading health two years later, Roberts took his own life on the very course he turned into an international golfing landmark. And golf’s long history of racism sadly makes it understandable how the “noose cover” could happen to begin with.