Greens are still lacking color

10 years after Woods won at Augusta, impact is muted

April 01, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

Eddie Payton figured that the landscape would have changed by now. A decade ago, when Tiger Woods became the first player of color to win the Masters at Augusta National, golf was considered a game as white as the ball with which it was played.

Payton, who has coached the men's and women's golf teams at historically black Jackson State for the past 23 years, hoped that the next generation of African-American athletes would want to be like Tiger as the previous one had wanted to be like Mike.

It hasn't happened, and Payton has lost hope that it ever will.

Going into this year's Masters, which begins Thursday, Woods remains the only full-time American-born player of color on the PGA Tour. There haven't been any full-time African-American players on the LPGA Tour since 2001. What's worse, the pool of talented black golfers capable of competing at a high level collegiately appears to be shrinking, with few nationally ranked African-Americans in the junior ranks.

Woods, 31, has become one of the most dominant players in history, and with 56 PGA titles and 12 major championships, he is challenging the legendary Jack Nicklaus for the title of greatest golfer ever.

Not only does it seem unlikely that there will ever be another Woods, but Payton also is concerned that Woods might be the last African-American player to make an impact on the game.

"The problem with the lack of minority participants has nothing to do with Tiger's success," Payton said recently. "He has created the interest. The problem is within the minority community that we have not picked up the torch and built on his excitement and his success to where we actually have facilities set up to teach kids and where there are programs bringing kids through to golf."

In the aftermath of Woods' historic win at Augusta - the first of four for him at the Masters - nonprofit organizations such as The First Tee Foundation tried to build grass-roots programs to give children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to play golf while being taught life skills.

Joe Louis Barrow, who has served as The First Tee's executive director since 2000, said in an interview last week that the mission of his 10-year-old organization isn't necessarily to produce the next Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour or only the fourth African-American female player on the LPGA Tour.

But he agrees with Payton's assessment of why more African-American players haven't followed Woods. "There's not been an appropriate bridge developed for those young people who have the talent and interest from diverse backgrounds to give them the opportunity [to receive] the finest, best teaching methods in order to understand if they have the skill and desire to go on," Barrow said. "That is a void in what has occurred in the last several years."

And the future?

"If we can't fill the pipeline starting at the high school level, it will be very infrequent that someone will be able to make the professional ranks without going through those steps," Barrow said. "We're starting to fill the pipeline, but it's going to take some time on the other end for those to have the skill set to perform at the highest level."

A couple of African-American players have come close to making the PGA Tour. Tim O'Neal, a Jackson State graduate, nearly made it in 2000, needing to bogey the last two holes in the final stage of Qualifying School. He bogeyed the next-to-last hole, but triple-bogeyed the final hole and hasn't come close since.

Kevin Hall, a deaf golfer who won the 2004 Big Ten championship by 11 strokes, had the lowest score at the first stage of Q-School two years ago, but failed to make it through the final stage. O'Neal, now 33, is on the Nationwide Tour, and Hall, 24, is trying to get there.

No women, either

The picture among the women is even bleaker. While there were as many as 12 African-Americans on the PGA Tour in 1976, only two, former tennis great Althea Gibson and Renee Powell, played more than a decade in the 52-year old history of the LPGA Tour. Neither won a tournament.

Said Powell, who left the LPGA Tour in 1981 after a 15-year career: "We have gone backwards."

Woods' niece, 16-year-old Cheyenne Woods, is one of the brightest prospects. She has been ranked as high as 25th among the juniors but was 91st as of last week.

Barrow, a former golf industry executive and son of boxing champ Joe Louis, places some of the responsibility in developing that talent pool on those making millions off the game - the manufacturers, as well as the professional tours themselves. Barrow suggests that regional golf camps should be established at colleges and that members of private clubs should serve as mentors to those who don't normally have access to the clubs or their teaching pros.

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