Zoeller Loses Sponsor For Remarks On Woods Kmart Corp. Called The Jokes ``offensive.'' The 1979 Masters Champ Has Issued An Apology.

Posted: April 23, 1997

Fuzzy Zoeller, known on the PGA tour as a lighthearted quipster, invoked racial stereotypes in joking about Masters champion Tiger Woods. Citing those remarks, Kmart Corp. yesterday ended its longtime association with Zoeller.

In an interview with CNN on the final day of the Masters - the tape wasn't shown until seven days later - Zoeller called Woods ``that little boy'' and told reporters to urge Woods not to order fried chicken and collard greens - ``or whatever they serve'' - at the annual Masters Champions Dinner next year.

Zoeller, 45, issued an apology on Monday, then spent yesterday answering to Kmart, his main sponsor, with whom he has been affiliated since the mid-1980s. After a day of meetings, Kmart officials issued a two-sentence statement last night from its headquarters in Troy, Mich.

``Kmart Corporation has reviewed the comments which Fuzzy Zoeller recently made concerning Tiger Woods. Under the circumstances, we have mutually agreed with Fuzzy Zoeller to immediately end our relationship,'' the statement said.

The value of Zoeller's contract with Kmart was not known. His agreement had one year remaining.

Woods has not commented on Zoeller's remarks.

Earlier yesterday, Kmart said the remarks ``were inappropriate and offensive. Regardless of the context, they are contrary to Kmart's long-standing policies that ensure our words and deeds are without bias.''

Zoeller, the 1979 Masters champion and one of the most popular players on the PGA tour, issued a statement last night from the office of his agent, Eddie Elias Enterprises, in Akron, Ohio.

Zoeller reiterated that he ``did not mean to offend anyone'' by his comments, and that he had tried to reach Woods ``to assure him that my comments were in jest, because I served fast-food hamburgers at the Champions Dinner that I hosted.

``One of the reasons I worked with Kmart was to help increase interest in the game of golf among as wide a group of people, of all ages and backgrounds, as possible,'' the statement said. ``I intend to continue trying to do just that.''

Zoeller, who hosts Kmart Outdoors every Saturday on ESPN, filmed some commercials for Kmart that became popular, the most memorable being his hitting a golf ball around one of the company's stores.

It was not known whether Kmart's affiliation with the outdoors show would continue.

Meanwhile, representatives of International Management Group, the Cleveland-based corporation that represents Woods, huddled yesterday to determine whether to respond to Zoeller's comments and subsequent apology.

On April 13, Woods, 21, completed a record-smashing victory in the Masters, becoming the first player of African American descent to don the traditional green jacket. In winning the event, Woods established records for lowest score (18-under-par 270), biggest margin of victory (12 strokes) and youngest champion.

Reporters and television crews routinely interviewed players who finished ahead of Woods in the final round at Augusta National Golf Club to get reaction on the historic moment.

``That little boy is driving well and he's putting well,'' Zoeller said, according to the interview transcript made available by CNN. ``He's doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it?''

On the tape, Zoeller walked away, then turned and added, ``Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.''

Zoeller was referring to the custom of the Masters winner choosing the menu at the next year's Champions Dinner. Sandy Lyle, the 1988 champion from Scotland, selected haggis - a dish native to his homeland that consists of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep or a calf - for the 1989 dinner. Ben Crenshaw chose Texas barbecue for the 1996 dinner, one year after he won.

The tape of Zoeller's interview did not run for seven days, until it appeared on CNN's Pro Golf Weekly on Sunday.

When asked why the comments did not run earlier, CNN spokesman Andy Mitchell said yesterday that the network felt it was more responsible ``to take the tape and put it in the proper perspective.''

Mitchell said CNN attempted to contact Woods and Zoeller. He said Woods was unavailable for comment and Zoeller did not respond to ``several attempts'' to reach him.

Coincidentally, the Zoeller-Woods flap came on the same day as Woods' taping of the Oprah Winfrey Show, a program that will air tomorrow, during which Woods says it bothers him when people call him an African American.

Woods said that growing up, he came up with the name ``Cablinasian'' to describe his background. He is one-fourth Thai, one-fourth Chinese, one-fourth black, one-eighth white and one-eighth American Indian.

Last month at the Players Championship, Zoeller used the term ``little boy'' when discussing John Daly, who admitted himself to the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcoholism.

``I think it's great that the tour is making sure that he goes and gets the help, because he is a sick little boy right now,'' said Zoeller, who is Daly's best friend on the tour.

The emergence of Woods as the Michael Jordan of golf has bothered some of the more established tour players, though it isn't known if Zoeller is part of that group. Woods is the No. 1 focus of fans, media and tournament directors who know that having him in their field means an event profitable beyond their wildest dreams.

With the attention comes controversy. This year, Woods has felt some heat for turning down invitations from Bob Hope to compete in his tournament, and from President Clinton to accompany him to last week's tribute in New York honoring Jackie Robinson.

This article contains information from Inquirer wire services.

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