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Greens are still lacking color

The Baltimore Sun

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.

The PGA Tour has supported the development of minority golfers by holding First Tee events at regular tournaments. Ty Votaw, the former commissioner of the LPGA Tour who now serves as the PGA Tour's vice president of communication, said through a spokesman that "we echo the sentiments of Joe Louis Barrow." Votaw was unavailable to comment further.

The LPGA Tour has been working with the U.S. Golf Association on a program to introduce young women of all ethnic and financial backgrounds, but Betsy Clark, the LPGA's vice president for player development, said last week: "I think there have been inroads in the industry. Can we do more? Absolutely. We can do more for growing girls golf, too."

Barrow recalled something that Earl Woods, who died of cancer last year, said in 2000 while they were conducting a joint news conference shortly he joined The First Tee Foundation.

"I was asked the question: 'When is The First Tee going to result in having another Tiger on the tour?' " Barrow said. "As I was about to answer, Earl said: 'It took me 20 years to create Tiger. Give these programs like The First Tee years to be successful.' "

Starting seven months after Woods' first victory in Augusta, Ga., The First Tee has 203 chapters and 257 facilities across the country, including one at Clifton Park Golf Course in Baltimore that will begin this year, and has reached more than 800,000 kids since 2000. Another 500,000 have participated in The First Tee National Golf program, an in-school program in 1,500 elementary schools.

Payton understands the purpose of The First Tee, but says the organization has strayed from its original demographic to include minorities who are not African-American. According to Barrow, 22 percent of its members are African-Americans.

"The First Tee did give the impression that it was for inner-city African-Americans because the first public service announcement showed a young person who was African-American tapping in a tee in an alley and hitting a golf ball," Barrow said. "The First Tee's always been about young people who didn't have access [to golf]."

Loyola College golf coach Tom Beidleman, who is executive director of the local First Tee chapter, said location often dictates the type of program offered.

"If you go out to Howard County [First Tee chapter] - and this isn't a slight to Howard County at all - but it's basically like the local country club where kids go to play golf all summer," Beidleman said. "The kids that we're going to get are going to have zero golf experience, zero resources. It is a long process to get kids to a level that you're talking about."

Lack of school support

One of Payton's players, Nikeya Peay, grew up playing in the junior program at Baltimore's Carroll Park. She started there when she was 8, three years before Woods won the 1997 Masters by a record 12 strokes. She remembers the initial burst of excitement and how African-American kids like her flocked to play golf that spring and summer.

As Peay got older, becoming the first African-American player to qualify for the state high school golf championship, where she finished second, she noticed the numbers dwindling. Peay attributes much of the apathy around Baltimore to the lack of golf programs in the public schools.

"When I was growing up, there were a couple of good players in our junior program, but as I go back home, there's barely any," said Peay, a junior at Jackson State who takes lessons at Baltimore Country Club and hopes to play professionally. "I hope it's going to change, but from my perspective now, I think that's the way it's going to be. There's a lot of opportunity out there, but there's no one there to pick it up."

As a result, the number of African-American players moving up to the college ranks is minimal. An NCAA survey in 2000 showed that less than 5 percent of the nearly 11,000 college players were black, with most of them playing at the historically black schools.

Powell recalled going to a minority women's golf championship in Atlanta two years ago to present the winning team, historically black Bethune-Cookman, with a trophy named in her honor.

"All but one of the players was from Sweden," said Powell, who runs the golf course that her pioneer father, Bill, built in East Canton, Ohio, in 1946 when blacks were not allowed to play at any other area course. "It took me back a little."

A survey by the National Golf Foundation in 2003 reported that only 9.3 percent of African-Americans 5 and older play golf, compared with 18.1 percent of Asian-Americans and 24.2 percent of Caucasians. Between the ages of 12 and 17, only 7.4 percent of African-Americans play, compared with 19.8 percent of Caucasians.

While all but one of Payton's current team members are black, several of his colleagues at historically black schools have been criticized for filling their rosters with players who are clearly in the minority at their schools.

Payton, who in 1996 became the first coach at a historically black school to take his team to the NCAA tournament, said much of it has to do with the training African-Americans receive.

Said Payton: "We can encourage our kids to play golf, but if there is nobody to teach them, because somebody at the golf course has never had formal lessons and can't explain the game and fundamentals and you have a bunch of kids who've learned to play at a limited level, they're going to play at that level because no one can take them to the next level."

Anthony G. Stepney, an assistant golf professional at the Walt Disney Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., who grew up in Woodlawn, would love to see a venue devoted to teaching African-American players. A former state government employee in Maryland, Stepney started thinking about a career in golf after Woods' win 10 years ago.

"It absolutely lit the spark," Stepney said. "Prior to that, there was a stigma associated with the game, associated with minorities. I realized that more people are coming into the game, but there's that deep chasm in how golf professionals are meeting their needs. I saw there was an opportunity for me to be just as great on the professional side, on the club side."

Unlike Michael Jordan, who was criticized for not giving much back to the African-American community after becoming the world's richest athlete, Woods established a foundation and last year opened a $25 million learning center in Irvine, Calif., near where he grew up. He recently announced plans to build another learning center in Washington.

Woods admits that he was a little oblivious to what was going on outside the gallery ropes after his win at Augusta a decade ago.

"I didn't know until probably a few years later what that event meant to other people," Woods said last week after winning at Doral. "I'm too close to the situation, because I guess I was the situation.

"That's something, the perspective I got over the years, years past, and people talking about how much it meant to them; I never knew that. I was out there trying to get my own green jacket and have Nick [Faldo, the defending champion] put it on my shoulders."

Most believe that something else shouldn't be on his shoulders now: creating more African-African golf champions.

"It's almost unfair to place the burden of the future generation of African-Americans in the game of golf on one individual who's playing for a living," Payton said. "What he's doing is unprecedented. When I step back and look at what us as a race of people are doing, to ensure there would be other Tiger Woods coming along, I think we are failing woefully."

don.markus@baltsun.com

Golf timeline for African- Americans

1896 -- John Shippen, an African-American who caddied at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, enters the second U.S. Open. It is held at the Long Island club, and Shippen is allowed to play after a protest by white professionals was rejected by USGA president Theodore Havemeyer.

1899 -- George Grant, one of the first two African-Americans to graduate from the Harvard Dental School, wins a patent for the wooden golf tee.

1948 -- After suing the PGA Tour, black golf pros Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller are allowed to enter the Los Angeles Open, but the tour leaves the decision to include black players to individual tournament directors.

1952 -- Charlie Sifford tries to qualify for the Phoenix Open but is subjected to racial threats.

1954 -- The U.S. Supreme Court rules that municipal courses in Houston must be open to black players.

1957 -- Sifford wins the Long Beach Open, a non-sanctioned PGA Tour event, against a field that includes several prominent white players.

1961 -- Sifford becomes the first full-time black member of the PGA Tour.

1963 -- Former tennis great Althea Gibson, who twice won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, joins the LPGA Tour. She would play 171 events over 14 years without a victory.

1967 -- Sifford becomes the first black player to win an official PGA Tour event, the Greater Hartford Open. He also would win the 1969 Los Angeles Open. Unlike other tour winners, he was not invited to play at the Masters, held at all-white Augusta National Golf Club.

1975 -- After winning the Monsanto Open in 1974, Lee Elder becomes the first black player to be invited to the Masters. Tiger Woods is born eight months later.

1979 -- Elder earns a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

1990 -- After black organizations threaten to picket Shoal Creek, an all-white club in Birmingham, Ala., during the PGA Championship, and sponsors pull more than $2 million in commercials for the telecasts, club founder Hall Thompson announces nine days before the tournament that Louis J. Willie had been given an honorary membership and waives the $35,000 initiation fee. Shortly thereafter, Augusta National admits its first black member, television executive Ron Townsend.

1996 -- Woods turns pro after winning his third straight U.S. Amateur championship. He signs a record endorsement contract with Nike and wins two events as a pro.

1997 -- At the Masters, Woods becomes the first player of color to win a major golf championship, setting records for margin of victory at Augusta National (12) and lowest tournament score with an 18-under-par 270. He also finishes the season ranked No. 1 for the first of seven times. In November, The First Tee Foundation is established.

2000 -- Woods becomes the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three of the four major championships in a year. Joe Louis Barrow, the son of boxing great Joe Louis, becomes executive director of The First Tee Foundation.

2001 -- After winning the last three majors in 2000, Woods wins the Masters to become the first player to win four consecutive majors. It is called the "Tiger Slam." Later that year, Sifford is inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, introduced by longtime friend Gary Player of South Africa.

2005 -- Hercules O. Pitts, a Washington business executive, becomes the first minority owner of a Maryland golf course when he buys Lake Arbor in Mitchellville.

2007 -- The first four players to receive college scholarships from The First Tee will graduate.

DON MARKUS

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