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The New Tiger/Obama Calculation

Barack Obama has a genuine shot at the presidency because Tiger Woods has altered how Americans view a talented black man in pursuit of a goal historically reserved for white guys.
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In 1997, a 21-year-old black-Asian golfer posted the lowest score in the history of the most prestigious golf tournament in America at one of the most exclusive private enclaves in America - Augusta National Golf Club.

Old white guys - rich good ol' boys in white pants and green jackets who were not accustomed to seeing a person of color playing on their famous golf course - found themselves rooting for this magnificent athlete who was tearing through their hallowed links like Sherman's March to the Sea.

With his extraordinary athletic prowess, Tiger Woods cut a swath through America's calcified racial prejudice. He excelled in what had historically been a wealthy white man's leisure pastime. In doing so, he caused a tectonic shift in race relations. Suddenly, it was okay - terrific even - for a black man to stand atop the leader board of American life.

This is why Barack Obama has a chance to become president of the United States in 2008. Woods has opened up a pathway for Obama in the American political psyche as no one before him.

Of course there are other black superstars who have established broad appeal that transformed race: Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby, to name a few. But basketball and entertainment don't occupy the same place in the American iconography as does golf - born in Scotland and played in America (until very recently) by affluent white people.

Golf is not an inner-city sport and it hasn't been - until quite recently - even a working-class sport. Historically, it's enjoyed about the same social status as polo, fox-hunting and squash. At the most exclusive golf clubs - where members dress for lunch and never use cash -- the amount of money you had wasn't as important as how old your money was.

Into this world came young Tiger Woods - a handsome, lithe, well-mannered, articulate young man with a black father and Thai mother. And a golf swing for the ages. He was so talented, so accomplished, so poised that only coarse, unbridled, unmasked racism could have kept him out of the ranks of the Professional Golfers of America with its access to the most discriminating golf clubs in the world.

And since overt racism was no longer fashionable, Tiger was permitted, on the strength of his ability, to play with the white guys. Only a few black golfers ever had had that opportunity and none with Tiger's prowess. The shift in attitudes Woods has created is what breaks the ice for Obama, the son of an African father and a white mother.

Here's what Katie Lang, a 32-year-old insurance executive from Tampa, told the Washington Post at an Obama campaign event:

Obama speaks to everyone. He doesn't just speak to one race, one group. He is what is good about this nation...Kind of like, if I could compare him to Tiger Woods. When I look at Tiger Woods, I see the best golfer in the world.

So when I see Barack Obama, I see a strong political candidate. I do not see 'Oh, that's a black man running for president, or African American or multiracial black.' It's not what comes to mind first. What comes to mind first is: great platform, charismatic, good leader, attractive.

As essayist Shelby Steele explained to Time magazine: "It's all about gratitude. White people are just thrilled when a prominent black person comes along and doesn't rub their noses in racial guilt. White people just go crazy over people like that."

If Obama does not win his party's nomination, it will not be because he is black. The tiny number of Democrats who won't vote for him because he's black wouldn't have voted for him anyway. If Obama is not successful, it will be because Clinton will have done a better job of capturing the Democratic base.

But if Obama could win the Democratic nomination, he would have a better shot a winning the presidency than would Ms. Clinton. He's less polarizing and more appealing to a wider swath of voters. Those who wouldn't vote for him because he is black would never vote for any Democrat. But there are plenty of voters who wouldn't vote for Clinton who might vote for a less antagonizing Democrat.

There's nothing new about referring to Obama as the Tiger Woods of politics, or in noting their crossover appeal or their similar racial fusion characteristics. But it's important to understand that the new racial calculus in America is this:

If he can win the Democratic Party's nomination, Barack Obama has a genuine shot at the presidency because Tiger Woods has altered how Americans view a talented black man in pursuit of a goal that has been historically reserved for white guys.