FARMINGDALE, N.Y., June 8 - When the U.S. Open came to New York for the first time in 1896, some pros threatened to withdraw because a black man and an Indian were in the field.
THE USGA COUNTERED that it would hold a two-man event if necessary. The boycott faded and the black golfer, John Shippen, wound up tied for sixth. He would go on to play the Open five more times.
These days, no one would dream of skipping a major because of someone’s ethnic background. Then again, some things haven’t changed since that tournament at Shinnecock Hills more than a century ago.
Woods is the only golfer of African-American descent who will tee it up on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park - five-plus years after his landmark Masters victory was supposed to bust down the country club doors.
The rest of the year, Woods is the only black on the PGA Tour. Over on the LPGA Tour, there are no blacks at all.
More troubling, few blacks are poised to earn their tour cards.
InsertArt(1526012)“We’ve fought the battle for such a long period of time,” said Lee Elder, part of a trailblazing group that integrated the sport in the 1960s and ’70s. “But the time has come for us to pass the baton. Unfortunately, there’s no one else to pass it to except Tiger, and he’s only one person. He can only do so much.”
Elder was the first black to play in the Masters. He returned to Augusta National in 1997, beaming with pride as he watched Woods blow away the field to become the first man of African-American heritage to don the green jacket.
“I was so optimistic that things would change,” Elder recalled. “By now, I thought there would be more blacks out here.”
Indeed, the number of black golfers has grown substantially, increasing 30 percent from 1996 - when Woods joined the PGA Tour - to 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation, a Florida-based trade group.
In its latest participation study, the foundation estimated 882,000 blacks had taken up the game, representing less than 4 percent of the golf-playing public but still a staggering 100 percent increase over 1991.
Another reason for hope: programs such as The First Tee, which builds courses in inner cities with hopes of giving thousands of minority kids their first chance to hit a little white ball.
InsertArt(1526011)Still, the outlook is bleak on the other side of the ropes.
LaRee Pearl Sugg, the only black on the LPGA Tour last year, abandoned her nondescript playing career to become the first women’s golf coach at the University of Richmond. The tour she left behind is filled with Europeans and Asians but not one black American.
“Let’s face it: golf is a rich man’s sport,” said Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, who overcame her own barriers as a woman of Latino descent. “Black Americans and Mexican-Americans don’t have a lot of money. A lot of white Americans don’t have a lot of money, for that matter. We’ve got to get to the point where we have some role models for kids who want to play the sport.”
There are few potential role models lurking on the developmental tours.
Andy Walker is the only black playing regularly on the Buy.com Tour - a step below the PGA - but he had made the cut in only one of four events heading into the weekend. Tim O’Neal lost his Buy.com card after ranking 59th on the money list a year ago.
Pomp Braswell II and Kevin Odom are the only blacks on the Hooters Tour, but Braswell - who grew up in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles and didn’t take up the game until he was 18 - may have to drop out after losing his sponsor a month ago.
“There are black players out there who are good enough, but they need sponsors,” said Braswell, 34. “Guys have to have the opportunity to play two, three, four years without worrying about finances. Can I pay the rent? Can I pay the hotel bills? Can I eat? Those are big issues that people don’t realize. I can name 10 black guys who have the talent. But they don’t have the finances.”
Back in 1997 - the same year Woods won his first Masters - Braswell sent out 100 letters to Fortune 500 companies asking for financial help. He was turned down by every one.
Woods has tried to do his part to expose the game to inner-city kids. The week after the U.S. Open, he will hold his 25th junior clinic in Orlando, Fla.
Woods said he’s not concerned about turning out future pros. He estimates that only 5 percent will ever make a living through the game, whether as a PGA star, a club pro or a course superintendent.
“My impact is not to bring kids to the tour, but to bring them to be better citizens,” he said. “I think the best vehicle is golf. There’s a lot of business opportunities in golf.”
Elder wonders if Woods is doing enough. Exposing kids to the game is fine; helping them improve their game would be even better.
InsertArt(1526010)“I’d really like to see him do a little bit more, certainly,” Elder said. “I would like to see him get involved more with the type of kids that are now getting ready to take the first step to come to the professional ranks: college kids who are getting ready to graduate. I think he should go around and visit more of the black colleges. They want to see him, they want to talk to him, they want to find out how hard he works.”
Eddie Payton is one of those in the trenches, coaching golf at predominantly black Jackson State University in Mississippi. He is troubled by the lack of quality minority golfers on the recruiting trail.
“We haven’t seen the results,” said Payton, brother of the late NFL great Walter Payton. “Until we get people into these inner-city programs with the expertise to teach these kids, we’re going to have a problem. More black people are playing, but not at a level where they’re competitive with the top players.”
Like his counterparts at several historically black colleges, Payton has not shied away from recruiting white golfers to stay competitive. This year, Jackson State reached the NCAA men’s regional with a team that included two Europeans, an African and two black Americans.
“When we get the top minority players, we can see they have natural ability,” Payton said. “But their golfing instincts and their mastery of the golf course and an understanding of how it works are what’s missing.”
He blames a system that directs most black youngsters to municipal courses, where green fees are more reasonable but the conditions are hardly championship quality.
Many haven’t learned how to cope with tight dog legs, narrow fairways, deep bunkers and treacherous bodies of water by the time they head off to college.
Jackson State was the first historically black school to qualify for the NCAAs in 1996, but the Tigers have yet to contend for a national title. Payton admits his players can’t compete with those from top schools.
“Our kids were used to hitting driver-wedge, because that’s what they spent all their time doing,” Payton said. “They don’t understand what’s a good par. They don’t understand what’s a good bogey. They try to make a miraculous shot and wind up with double-and triple-bogey. That’s discipline you learn with constant instruction at an early level.”
The First Tee hopes to fill that void. The 5-year-old program had opened 88 teaching facilities in areas “where kids would not otherwise not have access to the game,” said director Joe Louis Barrow Jr.
Its newest facility just opened at the end of a subway line in the Bronx.
In 2001, The First Tee introduced 60,000 kids to the game - including 22 percent who are black. By 2005, it hopes to reach a half-million. The program teaches life skills as well as how to hit a sand wedge.
In Atlanta, the East Lake Junior Golf Academy is part of a unique social experiment that hopes to level the playing field.
Sam Puryear and his staff are providing Golf 101 to more than 500 inner-city kids. Those who show talent and desire are given advanced lessons, hooked up with top coaches and get to play some of the area’s best courses.
Also, they have a chance to caddie at adjacent East Lake Golf Club, the historic home course of Bobby Jones and site of this year’s season-ending Tour Championship. That arrangement harkens back to an era when being a caddie was the main conduit for blacks to break into the game.
“The advent of the cart nearly destroyed minority golf,” said Puryear, who is black and followed in the footsteps of his father, a small college All-American. “For these kids, it’s a lot harder because golf is not in their family. When my dad used to put on his shirt and slacks, I knew where he was going: the golf course.”
For all its good work, East Lake is an anomaly. A foundation provided millions of dollars to renovate the old course, build a new 18-hole layout and revitalize the entire neighborhood, which once was so infested with drugs and crime it was known as “Little Vietnam.” Free lessons and equipment are provided to youngsters not ordinarily exposed to the game.
“I want to get better than Tiger Woods,” said 14-year-old Willie Brown, a skinny youngster blessed with a sweet swing, surprising power and a catchy nickname, “Thunder.”
Most inner-city kids aren’t so lucky. There’s no championship courses in their neighborhoods, no top-level coaches doling out advice, no prospects of heading off to prestigious golf camps in the summer.
Although The First Tee and countless clinics by PGA and LPGA players have helped, Payton says it’s not enough.
“What you see is a group of kids who are introduced to the game, who are excited about the game through various programs such as the PGA and LPGA clinics,” he said. “Then those people are gone. We’ve got them excited about the game but they have nowhere to go on a daily basis to give them the type of instruction to master the fundamentals. We’re exciting them on one hand, and crippling them on the other.”
Until the gap from introductory lessons to high-level coaching is bridged, the racial gulf will continue to grow, Payton fears.
“We’re running to catch up with people who are running to stay ahead,” he said.
Elder is even more blunt about the poor level of coaching at black universities. He would like someone to start an affordable summer golf academy that caters exclusively to college-age minority golfers.
If things don’t change, Elder worries that blacks will miss their chance to catch Tiger’s wave.
“We’re becoming a dying breed,” he said. “If we don’t capitalize on this opportunity, I don’t know when another is going to come along.”
© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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