Earl's dream still a work in progress

Posted: April 04, 2007

OLD EARL HAD had a vision. It was 1994, and young kids everywhere were still answering the call to "Be Like Mike," despite the fact that Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan was off that year playing baseball. But Earl Woods sensed a day would come when a still unborn generation of American youth would yearn to emulate his talented young son Tiger, who Earl had groomed to become the stuff of legend. At age 2, Tiger was so precocious that he appeared on the old "Mike Douglas Show," putting with comedian Bob Hope; a year later, he shot a 48 on nine holes; by his eighth birthday, he was breaking 80. With him every step of the way until cancer claimed him at 74 last May, Earl said of his boy 13 years ago: "If Tiger does develop and bloom, you will find that kids will be sinking putts instead of shooting baskets."

So has that come to pass?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, if you consider that the grassroots involvement of young blacks in golf has doubled in 10 years to some 5 million, according to Herschel Caldwell, the editor of the Web site Minority Golf & Sports Magazine (minoritygolfmag.com). No, if you look at the paucity of blacks playing professionally. Other than Woods, there are two black players on the Champions Tour, former stars Jim Dent and Jim Thorpe; and just one black player on the Nationwide Tour, 33-year-old Tim O'Neal. Other young black players are competing at the amateur level, but would appear to be far off from joining Tiger on the PGA Tour. When asked last year if he was disappointed by the dearth of blacks players in the upper echelons of the sport, Woods replied, "Yeah. I thought there would be more of us out there."

Economics have always been the big obstacle that has kept black children out of golf. Given the cost of equipment, apparel, travel and so on, the sport is one of the more expensive athletic endeavors to pursue. But that has changed somewhat with the emergence of programs designed to introduce inner-city children to golf. Drawn to the sport by the success and overall appeal of Woods, children who would otherwise not have been exposed to the sport are participating in The First Tee program, which is sponsored in part by the PGA, the LPGA and Shell Oil. Chapters are located in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore and each of the 50 United States, including one at FDR Golf Course in Philadelphia. There, PGA pro Adz Kozlowski says: "All of the kids who come here to play know who Tiger is - and only Tiger. None of them have heard of even Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer. Tiger is it."

Uniquely aware of the impact he has on the young, Tiger has leveraged that position to better society. He has opened up the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif., and plans to open a second one in Washington, D.C. The aim of the school is to help children between grades 5 and 12 answer the question: "What are you really good at and where will it lead?" Well beyond whatever Woods achieves in golf, he appears energized to create a legacy that echoes the prophecy expressed by his beloved dad, who once said that his son would be "the bridge between East and West  . . . He is the Chosen One. He will have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations." Says Dr. Charles Sinnette, the author of a history of blacks in golf called "Forbidden Fairways": "So he would seem to have a somewhat larger world view than Michael Jordan."

Criticism that Jordan has come under for his general lack of social consciousness is relevant to any conversation concerning Woods, who Sinnette says follows far more closely in step to the legacy created by tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Sinnette says Ashe heralded a "new type of black athlete: educated, committed and driven, someone with an understanding of the world beyond his own sphere."

Caldwell says the same. "Tiger appears genuinely concerned how people perceive him when he leaves the game. Insofar as each is interested in that to some extent, you could say that some of this is selfish on his part. But he has a genuine passion for the welfare of children." Caldwell says that while "golf is going to benefit" by the work Woods has done, "the community as a whole is going to be the larger beneficiary."

The book Sinnette wrote chronicles the long struggle that blacks have faced in golf, which has been as segregated as any American institution in the last century. Fine players such as Teddy Rhodes and others were shunned by the white establishment that presided over golf, which even into the 1990s excluded blacks from joining exclusive country clubs. Sinnette and others say that the emergence of Tiger has in part broken down these ugly barriers and that the only obstacle that stands between a black player and a club membership is the ability to come up with the admittance fee. Caldwell adds that there has been a spike in the percentage of older blacks who play golf, some of whom do so as a way to engage in business enterprises. But while he says that the expansion of programs such as The First Tee is encouraging, he adds that it could be years before players who come out of it develop into something more than social golfers.

Bill Dickey agrees. "Getting young kids to play golf is one thing, but helping them get to that higher level is another thing altogether," says Dickey, a former real estate executive in Phoenix who in 1984 began the National Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association. (The program is now called The Bill Dickey Scholarship Association.) Dickey has generated $2 million in scholarship money to more than 800 young golfers through the years. In June he will hold the eighth annual Bill Dickey Invititational Junior Golf Championship at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where he will invite the top 44 minority players in America (28 boys and 16 girls). He says that Earl Woods did not appreciate the challenges that faced young black golfers.

"Earl did have a vision," Dickey says. "I remember he said that there were a lot of kids in the pipeline. But now here we are 10 years later and where are we? Obviously, we have introduced more players to the game. But the question is, 'Can you keep them in the game to the point where they can prosper in it?' "

So Earl Woods was in error to some degree? "I think so," Dickey says. "Or should I say, he did not look at the whole picture. He did not ask the question: 'What is it going to take to get these kids out of the pipeline?' Getting a young player into Division I and then onto the circuit can be a process that costs $50,000 or more a year. The First Tee program is a help, but it is not set up to get a player to the PGA Tour."

But Caldwell urges to "give it time."

"Overall, the effect Tiger has had on participation has been positive," he says. "There are two ways to look at it. On one hand, you have the expectations of the public in general, which could well be disappointment in that there are few black golfers playing professionally. On the other hand, you have the expectations of the golf realist, who understands that it could be one or two generations before we fully realize the effect of Tiger Woods."

His reasoning is this: The kids now playing in The First Tee programs are just 10 to 17, which is to say they are in the process of working their way up through the system. And while the Tiger Woods Learning Center is concerned less with golf than larger educational issues, Caldwell says that it should help that he is opening up a second learning center "in the heart of a minority center [in Washington]." Caldwell fully expects that "a generation or so from now, you will see the effect of Tiger Woods like you would never believe."

Caldwell adds, "And people will look back and say: 'Earl Woods knew what he was talking about.'"

Charles Dorton, who operates the Black Golf Information Center, agrees. "Give it a few years," he says. "We may not see it today, but there are kids out there playing and they are enjoying it. Some of them will go to college on scholarship and some of them will even play on the PGA Tour. There are kids who are out there working on it."

That appeared clear one sunny March day last week at the FDR Golf Course. While The First Tee program does not begin in earnest until summer, Kozlowski says that even now carloads of kids occasionally drop in from inner-city schools to play. On this day, the golf team from John W. Hallahan High School is scattered on the putting green practicing under the watchful eye of coach Phil Moyer. The coach says that while he brought his team down here initially, "a lot of them had never even had a golf club in their hand.

"More girls are interested in this than ever before," says Moyer. "And this is just our third year in the league. In the beginning, it was tough for them. But now they enjoy it. And they are improving."

One of the young players certainly hopes she is.

Sophomore Decordae Kpau leans on her club and says she enjoys "the quiet of golf, how you have to think." When she joined the team as a freshman, she did it in part just to "give it a try" and in part because there were few black players on the team. But in her second year she has become enamored with the game and says she now dreams of becoming a professional golfer.

She grins and adds, "That would be kind of nice." *

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