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Sadly, pro golf is still wider shade of pale

10 years after taking sport by storm, Tiger is only black on any PGA tour
MASTERS GOLF
Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the first hole during third round play of the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., Saturday, April 8, 2006. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)Rob Carr / AP

When John Fizer was 13 years old, he watched on television as 21-year-old Tiger Woods triumphed in the 1997 Masters by a record-breaking 12 shots. It was the first victory by an African-American in any of golf's four major championships, and Fizer felt inspired.

"I definitely identified with him right off the bat," said Fizer, an African-American who recently completed his college golf career at Virginia. "Him winning the Masters was the turning point for me in golf. I had also played baseball and basketball when I was a kid. When he won, that's when I knew this was what I wanted to do. I decided I was going to focus on golf. It had a huge impact on me, very definitely."

Later this summer, Fizer will move to south Florida, where he will spend a year trying to become good enough to play on the PGA Tour. An exception already, he's well aware that the odds are against him.

In 1976, the year after Woods was born, there were 12 African-American players on the PGA Tour. Ten years after Woods turned professional in the summer of 1996, Woods is the only African-American player on a PGA Tour.

From 1964 to 1986, five African-Americans -- Washingtonian Lee Elder, Charlie Sifford, Jim Thorpe, Calvin Peete and Pete Brown -- won a total of 23 PGA tournaments. No black player other than Woods, with 48 career victories, has won on the tour since 1986.

This week, Woods will be the only African-American player playing in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, America's national championship of golf. There are currently no African-Americans on the LPGA Tour, only one African-American -- 33-year-old Jackson State graduate Tim O'Neal -- on the feeder Nationwide Tour and two part-time African-American players on the women's Futures Tour. O'Neal missed earning his PGA Tour card by a single shot in the 2005 qualifying event.

"Am I disappointed? Yeah," Woods said before last year's U.S. Open at Pinehurst. "I thought there would be more of us out here, but then again, it's a matter of getting enough players. You have to have a big enough base. At the junior level, there are some players with some talent, but as you continue to play and continue to move up levels, the screening process kind of weeds them out.

"It's hard to make it out here. A lot of these kids don't have the opportunity to practice and play and compete around the country in junior golf events or individual amateur events. I've seen enough of them in college, and I'm excited about that, getting an education and getting an opportunity to further themselves from that aspect, but we don't have a big enough base for them to have an opportunity to get out here."

Small steps taken
When Woods took the golf world by storm 10 years ago, his late father, Earl, and many others predicted his success would help pave the way for young minorities to take up a game once considered the province of the rich.

That has happened, to an extent. According to the National Golf Foundation's most recent study in 2003, more than 882,000 African-Americans were playing golf in 1999, and that figure increased by 47 percent by 2003, when 1.3 million African-Americans were playing the sport -- five percent of the country's black population and six percent of all American golfers. A similar trend was seen among Asian-Americans: More than 1.1 million were playing in 2003, up from 851,000 in 1997.

But that hasn't translated into more faces of color playing regularly on the country's top professional tours. Nor is the huge increase in black recreational golfers reflected in the scarcity of African-Americans holding meaningful positions in the nation's leading golf organizations.

The U.S. Golf Association, the sport's governing body in North America, has no African-American officers and only one African-American on its 16-person executive committee.

The PGA Tour's 20-man board of directors has one African-American, Carl Ware of Atlanta. There also is only one African-American among 79 staff members pictured in the tour's 2006 media guide, Don Wallace, director of operations for its Shotlink computerized scoring and hole-by-hole tracking system.

The PGA of America, the organization representing America's club and teaching professionals, has no African Americans on its 17-person board of directors and one African-American, Earnie Ellison, director of business and community relations, among 30 staff directors pictured in its current media guide. The LPGA, which hasn't had a black player regularly on tour since 2002, has no African-Americans on its board of directors (13), none on its senior staff (5) and none on its tournament operations staff (13).

In the PGA of America's most recent survey, 22,000 of 28,000 members responded. Among those 22,000, 61 were African-American professional members, and 80 were African-American apprentice professionals. But executive director Joe Steranka, now in his first year on the job, said the organization's goal is to increase the number of all minorities and women in its membership to 2,200 over the next 10 years.

"We are conscious of having people of color and women involved in every facet of the PGA of America," he said. "Our track record of growing diversity in the game and the business of golf is substantive, as well . . . Can we do better? Absolutely. It's important to us."

Trying to get a head start

Over the past decade, the most ambitious initiative to raise the number of minorities playing golf has been the PGA Tour's First Tee program. The initial mission was to take the game to areas where golf was not all that accessible, particularly the inner cities, while also teaching educational and life skills.

Headed by Joe Louis Barrow, the son of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, The First Tee had 217,000 participants in 2005 and has 250 U.S. facilities, most with learning centers such as the one at Langston Golf Club in Northeast Washington. But in its most recent annual review, The First Tee reported that only 26 percent of its participants from 2001 to 2005 were African-American, with 51 percent Caucasian, 10 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian-American.

"We've had a lot of success helping kids go on to college and some even playing college golf," said Jimmy Garvin, who runs Langston and oversees a variety of programs for youngsters at the course. "But there's so much more we should be doing, because at some point, the game starts to get very expensive, and it's extremely difficult to get the kind of training you need to make it to the top."

Said Bill Dickey, who has run a long-time Phoenix-based college scholarship program for young minority golfers: "The First Tee takes a lot of these kids only so far. We get some of these kids to a certain level, but then when they need to start playing in all those junior events on a national level, when they need more sophisticated instruction, how do we do it? Where does the money and the support come from? That's what we've got to figure out. I'd like to see more of it coming from the African-American community, to tell you the truth. But that isn't happening."

Barrow maintains it will only be a matter of time before First Tee graduates begin to make their mark in the professional game.

"I'm seeing a lot more young [African-American] people playing high school golf," he said. "I see more moving on to college golf. We're seeing more African-American and Hispanic kids in the American Junior Golf Association [AJGA] events. The pipeline is starting. Earl Woods said when we started we needed to give it time. It took us 20 years to get Tiger where he is now.

"Let's face it, the old feeder system that produced guys like Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder went away. I'm talking about caddie programs that used to give African-Americans their first real access to the game. We're starting to see a little resurgence in caddie programs around the country. And whether young people playing college golf have the ability and the perseverance to get to a higher level has yet to be seen."

There are other discouraging numbers, as well. According to the AJGA, which has a weekly national ranking of junior players from 12 to 18, not one African-American is in the top 100 for boys in that age group. The highest-ranked junior girl is Cheyenne Woods of Phoenix, Tiger's niece, at No. 25, and the only other African-American girl ranked in the top 100 is No. 75 Jennifer Adyorough of Atlanta.

"I'm not sure that we're doing anything wrong in golf; it's just the other sports are doing better than we are at attracting minority kids and keeping them," said Stephen Hamblin, executive director of the AJGA. "So many of these teams sports are organized at such an early level. My own daughter played soccer at age four. They give them uniforms, all their friends play, they do things that are cool and fun. Golf hasn't really done that.

"Cost is also a factor, though that was more true four of five years ago. The USGA has changed the rules so junior golfers can now get expenses paid for traveling to tournaments, getting reimbursed for meals and lodging and accepting free equipment. We have a program [Achieving Competitive Excellence, or ACE] where a financially disadvantaged kid can apply for a grant of $4,500 a year to play national junior golf. We award 50 of them. There are many ways to address these expenses."

College Anxieties

At the college level, Kevin Hall of Ohio State, an African-American player who also is deaf, won the Big Ten championship two years ago and is now playing mini-tour golf. But Dickey said he sees very few African-American players competing in the upper echelon Division I programs, and also has noticed a distressing trend on golf teams representing many of the nation's historically black colleges. At the recent National Minority College Golf Championship, conducted by the PGA of America in West Palm Beach, a number of schools fielded teams filled with Caucasian players, most of them recruited outside the U.S.

"I would say the majority of kids on the black college teams are now white," said Eddie Payton, the golf coach at Jackson State and brother of the late Walter Payton. "The minority pool of golfers is so small, every year you've got maybe a one in five chance to get a top minority kid in your program. So now you might go to Australia, where the No. 200 kid in the country is probably better than anyone you can get, and you bring him in. It helps the school in its own diversity goals, and it sure as hell helps your team."

Payton, who has seven African-Americans and one Hispanic-American player on his own team, is not yet ready to describe the First Tee as a failure, but he also knows much more can and must be done to change the numbers of minorities on the PGA and LPGA tours.

"Sure there are more kids interested because of Tiger Woods," Payton said. "But the original problems still exist. There are not a lot of very good junior programs in minority communities. There are no existing teaching academies to take some of these promising minority players and give them the kind of instruction they need to play on a national level. Until we address those problems, we'll never see the amount of minorities playing at the highest levels that I'd like to see."

Payton and Dickey said they also believe Woods has already done his part to bring more African-Americans into the game. They applauded his new $25 million learning center in his native Southern California, where academics and learning life skills are emphasized over golf, and they reject any notion that Woods could be doing more to make sure more African-Americans advance to the professional tours in the future.

"Is it Tiger's fault there aren't any more playing with him?" Payton said. "No. It's our fault as a race, and the golf industry's problem if they don't see it as a necessity. It's hard to mandate to an individual what he should be doing, because it's something he should want to do, and he's shown that he wants to do it. But the way I look at, we are basically where we were 10 years ago when Tiger first came out on the tour. It's still an uphill battle, and we have a long way to go."

Meantime, John Fizer knows the journey he is just beginning will not be easy. His father, a dentist practicing in Trenton, introduced him to the game when he was eight years old. His parents have always provided financial support and will stake him to the $25,000 he estimates he'll need to move to Florida, find a place to practice and pay the entry fees for mini-tour events for six months.

"I want to give myself a year to work on my game," he said. "If I don't see some results in the next two or three years, I'll look at other avenues. I want to stay involved with the game, whether it's playing, working in the golf business, teaching. There aren't a lot of black instructors or black players as role models. Tiger obviously is one. But he's also a one-in-a-million athlete."