Tiger Woods speaking at the We Are One celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.
Among the many things to respect about Tiger Woods is that he is about as stand-up of a guy as you will find in professional sports. Never in his career have you heard him say he was misquoted or deny words attributed to him. That's because his life is one of thoughtful commitment.
Massively skilled golfer? No doubt. But Woods' work ethic and intelligence have as much to do with his success as does his natural ability, if not more. How many times has it appeared as if Woods has willed something to happen on the golf course? And almost never does he make a mental mistake. He not only outplays his opponents, he out-works them and out-thinks them as well.
What refreshing behavior it is to have an athlete who considers the impact of his actions before committing to them. We live in a time when many who play for pay mouth off and then, when their ill-advised comments trigger a hailstorm of reaction, blame everyone except himself or herself. That Woods participated in Sunday's pre-inaugural We Are One concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial says a lot about Barack Obama's ability to unify, but it also says volumes about Tiger.
Obama takes the oath of office promising to heal the great divides in the American political and social landscape that must be bridged if the massive challenges confronting the nation are to be faced successfully. Luring Woods to the stage to make his brief, eloquent comments about his pride in being the son of a career military man was a small thing with enormous potential.
Until now, the extent of Woods' political involvement has been the impressive work of the Tiger Woods Foundation and the Tiger Woods Learning Center. He has let the actions of those institutions speak for him, and they do so quite eloquently. But it is almost as if Woods senses that this is a critical time in American history and on Sunday we saw an extremely private man make a very public statement for unity.
There is much to admire in Woods' quest for privacy. He is on the extremely short of the best-known people in the world yet rarely do you see a photo of him at a trendy nightspot and, except for his own Tiger Jam, which raises money for his foundation, do you see him rubbing elbows publicly with other celebrities.
With a daughter, Sam, at home and Elin pregnant with another child due in February there is very much the sense that family is what Tiger is all about. That came across Sunday when he praised the "dedication of those who serve," referencing his father, Lt. Col. Earl Woods. By his actions, and without saying as much, Tiger reminded all paying attention that whether in uniform or not the difficulties of the nation demand that we all now serve in some way.
In the early months of the Revolutionary War that created this nation Thomas Paine, who was 100 years ahead of his contemporaries on race relations and slavery, wrote a series of pamphlets called The Crisis. Gen. George Washington would have the pamphlets read to his troops to inspire them. The first of those begins like this:
"These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
"Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."
What Paine was so eloquently identifying was what athletes would call "fair-weather fans," those who cheer the team when it is winning and turn on it at the first sign of adversity. Woods has proven to be exactly the kind of patriot Paine called for: one that emerges from the shadows when most needed.
Woods received widespread criticism in 1997 when he refused then President Clinton's invitation to participate in events marking the 50th anniversary of the integration of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson. But he was only 21 then, and he feared being manipulated for political purposes.
Tiger is 33 now and much more confident about his ability to control events off the golf course. What we saw Sunday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was another step in the maturation of Woods. He embraced his celebrity status in the most positive way possible -- by using it to serve a greater good, a higher purpose.
Sometimes we care too much about what celebrities think and attach too much importance to their words and deeds. But the message of Sunday's gathering transcending party lines, as was made clear in the very name of the event: We Are One. Also made clear was this sobering thought: Our problems are many and monumental.
Woods and Obama serve as the perfect public face of America at this crucial time. They are smart, dynamic, multi-racial and have an impressive ability to inspire. It could be that Woods has saved the best of himself for when we need it most. He has always inspired us on the golf course, perhaps now he will do so off it as well.
Let's not overstate what Woods did Sunday. He said a few words about the pride we should have in those who wear the uniform of the United States. But that is an important message. To be against the war, as Obama is, is not to be against the troops, as some would have us believe. Woods helped advance the national dialogue to a more sophisticated level.
Among the many things Earl Woods said was that his son would have a profound social effect on the world. That the best golfer in the world and the President of the United States are both men of color -- a first in both cases -- is more than coincidence. It is progress.
Both know, in the words of Paine: "the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." The conflict ahead is the nation's hardest. The role for Woods need not be one to propose policy but, just as importantly, to inspire unity.
By honoring his father and others in uniform with that call Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial, Woods made his own commitment to public service. Somewhere, Earl Woods -- Pops -- is extremely proud of his son. Any of us who met the father know he shed a tear of joy for his son. Well played, Tiger.