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Competitive golf still plays short when it comes to integrating game


PINEHURST, N.C. -- We have been told a white lie.

Because the black hole is getting bigger and bigger.

Here we are 10 years later -- 10 years after Tiger Woods joined the PGA Tour -- and competitive golf is no more integrated now than it was then.

Back then, there was rampant optimism that Woods' emergence as the most dominant, dynamic presence the game had seen in decades would spread the gospel of golf from the country club to the inner city. The Ancient Game, we were told, would soon become a newer, more progressive one.

Now, as Woods prepares for his 11th U.S. Open, the field of competitors at Pinehurst No. 2 is as ivory as the surrounding sand hills of North Carolina. Woods was the only black golfer on tour then and is still the only black golfer on tour. The racial diversity that was supposed to spread like a range fire is barely a flicker. The impulsive predictions and Pollyannaism of 10 years ago have been whited out.

"Am I disappointed?" Woods said Tuesday, repeating a reporter's question. "Yeah. I thought there would more of us out here."

Said Dr. Thomas Dorsey, an African-American dentist who runs the Orlando (Fla.) Minority Youth Golf Association: "I don't think we've made much headway at all in the last 10 years."

The highest level of professional golf is whiter now than it's been since the "Caucasian only" clause was expunged from the rulebook nearly 50 years ago. And it's not just the PGA Tour. The LPGA Tour has no black players and the Nationwide Tour -- the PGA Tour's developmental league -- has only one. Alarmingly, there are more aging, retired black tour players -- guys like Jim Thorpe, Calvin Peete, Lee Elder and Charlie Sifford -- carting off into the sunset than there are young, rising ones appearing on the horizon.

Woods or no Woods, the fairways haven't been this fair-skinned since the tour integrated. At least back in the old days many PGA Tour players used African-American caddies, but now even black loopers have been usurped by those of the Caucasian persuasion.

You need look no further than our nation's historically black colleges to understand the scope of the problem. Tennessee State won the recently completed National Minority College Golf Championship, and afterward coach Catana Starks was quoted as saying the championship was special because "it recognizes the golf programs at black and minority colleges across the country."

One problem: All of Tennessee State's players are white, including two players from Australia, one from Sweden, one from England and one from Sioux Falls, S.D.

What happened? Where are all the black golfers Woods was supposed to lure to the game? Or were we all just being naive a decade ago?

Sure, many more minorities are interested in watching golf because of Woods, but how many are actually more interested in playing it? Although the World Golf Foundation started the First Tee program--a nationwide initiative to introduce the game to inner-city kids -- shortly after Woods' emergence, there are still way too many socio-economic obstacles to overcome for golf to thrive in the black community.

Ten years ago, everyone just took it for granted that Woods was the first of a new breed of black golfer. Now you can't help but wonder:

Might he also be the last?

Mike Bianchi is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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