Posted on June 12, 2006

A Wider Shade Of Pale

Leonard Shapiro, Washington Post, June 11, 2006

When John Fizer was 13 years old, he watched on television as 21-year-old Tiger Woods triumphed in the 1997 Masters by a record-breaking 12 shots. It was the first victory by an African American in any of golf’s four major championships, and Fizer felt inspired.

“I definitely identified with him right off the bat,” said Fizer, an African American who recently completed his college golf career at Virginia. “Him winning the Masters was the turning point for me in golf. I had also played baseball and basketball when I was a kid. When he won, that’s when I knew this was what I wanted to do. I decided I was going to focus on golf. It had a huge impact on me, very definitely.”

Later this summer, Fizer will move to South Florida, where he will spend a year trying to become good enough to play on the PGA Tour. An exception already, he’s well aware that the odds are against him.

In 1976, the year after Woods was born, there were 12 African-American players on the PGA Tour. Ten years after Woods turned professional in the summer of 1996, Woods is the only African-American player on the PGA Tour.

From 1964 to 1986, five African Americans — Washingtonian Lee Elder, Charlie Sifford, Jim Thorpe, Calvin Peete and Pete Brown — won a total of 23 PGA tournaments. No black player other than Woods, with 48 career victories, has won on the tour since 1986.

This week, Woods will be the only African-American player playing in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, America’s national championship of golf. There are currently no African Americans on the LPGA Tour, only one African American — 33-year-old Jackson State graduate Tim O’Neal — on the feeder Nationwide Tour and two part-time African-American players on the women’s Futures Tour. O’Neal missed earning his PGA Tour card by a single shot in the 2005 qualifying event.

“Am I disappointed? Yeah,” Woods said before last year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst. “I thought there would be more of us out here, but then again, it’s a matter of getting enough players. You have to have a big enough base. At the junior level, there are some players with some talent, but as you continue to play and continue to move up levels, the screening process kind of weeds them out.

“It’s hard to make it out here. A lot of these kids don’t have the opportunity to practice and play and compete around the country in junior golf events or individual amateur events. I’ve seen enough of them in college, and I’m excited about that, getting an education and getting an opportunity to further themselves from that aspect, but we don’t have a big enough base for them to have an opportunity to get out here.”

Small Steps Taken

When Woods took the golf world by storm 10 years ago, his late father, Earl, and many others predicted his success would help pave the way for young minorities to take up a game once considered the province of the rich.

That has happened, to an extent. According to the National Golf Foundation’s most recent study in 2003, more than 882,000 African Americans were playing golf in 1999, and that figure increased by 47 percent by 2003, when 1.3 million African Americans were playing the sport — 5 percent of the country’s black population 6 percent of all American golfers. A similar trend was seen among Asian Americans: More than 1.1 million were playing in 2003, up from 851,000 in 1997.

But that hasn’t translated into more faces of color playing regularly on the country’s top professional tours. Nor is the huge increase in black recreational golfers reflected in the scarcity of African Americans holding meaningful positions in the nation’s leading golf organizations.

The U.S. Golf Association, the sport’s governing body in North America, has no African-American officers and only one African American on its 16-person executive committee.

The PGA Tour’s 20-man board of directors has one African American, Carl Ware of Atlanta. There also is only one African American among 79 staff members pictured in the tour’s 2006 media guide, Don Wallace, director of operations for its Shotlink computerized scoring and hole-by-hole tracking system.

The PGA of America, the organization representing America’s club and teaching professionals, has no African Americans on its 17-person board of directors and one African American, Earnie Ellison, director of business and community relations, among 30 staff directors pictured in its current media guide. The LPGA, which hasn’t had a black player regularly on tour since 2002, has no African Americans on its board of directors (13), none on its senior staff (5) and none on its tournament operations staff (13).

In the PGA of America’s most recent survey, 22,000 of 28,000 members responded. Among those 22,000, 61 were African-American professional members, and 80 were African-American apprentice professionals. But executive director Joe Steranka, now in his first year on the job, said the organization’s goal is to increase the number of all minorities and women in its membership to 2,200 over the next 10 years.

“We are conscious of having people of color and women involved in every facet of the PGA of America,” he said. “Our track record of growing diversity in the game and the business of golf is substantive, as well . . . Can we do better? Absolutely. It’s important to us.”