It was about the time Woods won his first Masters that the game of golf grabbed Bramlett and began to lead him toward his future. Members at the country club recall seeing this skinny black kid come to the first tee with a bag of clubs bigger than he was. Sure, please join us. And then he'd kick their butts. Everyone knew Joseph Bramlett was the next character in this familiar story.
That was then. Bramlett is 6-foot-4 now and a 22-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour. He's playing this week in the AT&T National at Aronimink. Woods, whose foundation benefits from the tournament, will make ceremonial appearances only as he recovers from leg injuries. They are still the only two African-Americans on the tour.
Bramlett and Woods are linked by their similar childhood upbringings, by their Stanford ties, by their race. So far, they are not linked by their accomplishments because, well, regardless of your story, it isn't easy to be Tiger Woods on a golf course. For his part, however, Bramlett doesn't mind the burden of the comparison.
"It comes with the territory. It's nothing I'm going to get tired of, because it's part of me and who I am," Bramlett said Monday after completing a pro-am round at Aronimink, and just before heading to the practice range. "It generates a lot of interest in people and that's how it is. He's a very tough act to follow in terms of the results he's achieved, but at the same time he's a great model regarding the way he's gone about training and treating himself as an athlete. If people want to compare me to him, that's fine. I've got plenty to do myself."
Bramlett survived the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament that ended in December, becoming the first African American to earn his card by that route in 25 years. The Q-School is a three-stage process in which thousands of golfers are winnowed down to between two and three dozen qualifiers, depending on the year.
"Any time you break down some kind of barrier, a lot of pride goes behind that. In qualifying, you get tested week after week," Bramlett said. "By the time you reach the final stage, including practice rounds, it's two weeks long and there is pressure the whole time. It's one of the most unique tests in sports."
Bramlett had been facing and meeting tests for a long time. He was the youngest-ever qualifier for the U.S. Amateur when he was 14. As a freshman at Stanford, he led the Cardinal to the NCAA championship, then lost two seasons of golf to a series of wrist injuries before returning for his senior season.
"Those were tough times when I was injured and I missed some playing time I wish I could have had, but it made me grow in other ways. It let me focus on school and get ahead there," said Bramlett, who graduated with a degree in communications. "I still got to where I wanted to be. I was able to prepare for Q-School and then get out here. So I don't view it as something that held me back, but something I had to face along the road."
The rookie road has had its own challenges, of course. Bramlett has made the cut in just seven of the 14 events he has entered, and his earnings of $85,681 place him 195th on the Tour money list. To keep his card for next season, he has to finish in the top 125. To be a conditional member - eligible for some PGA tournaments - he has to finish in the top 150. Otherwise, it's back to Q-School to requalify.
"That's not the goal, obviously. If it happens, it's part of the ride," Bramlett said. "But I also feel I have a half-season of experience now and that's going to help me. I definitely feel I'm getting closer and my swing is getting sharper. Hopefully, things are going to really start clicking. I'm out here to play golf the rest of my life. It's not like I'm going to quit next year."
After missing three straight cuts, Bramlett played four under-par rounds at the Travelers Championship in Hartford last week, including a career-low 67 in the second round. He would like to keep that going at Aronimink and get on a roll that would ensure his spot for next season. After a half-season of adjusting to the pace of this life - of managing the travel, the finances, the caddying, and trying to keep his game in line - perhaps the second half of the season will provide the payoff.
"It takes a toll on you mentally. I'm not using that as an excuse, but it's something I had to learn," Bramlett said. "Once you get out there, it's still golf. The courses are tougher and the competition is much harder, but it's still what we dream about doing all our lives."
Sometimes those dreams begin with a golf club placed in the crib and sometimes one story can follow another and be just as good in the retelling. Joseph Bramlett hopes it turns out that way, and Thursday at Aronimink, he will begin to write another chapter in the tale.
Contact columnist Bob Ford at email@example.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/