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Archive for Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Woods broke barrier, but what now?

June 17, 2009

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Quick: Name the second-best African-American golfer in the world.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t, because Joseph Louis Barrow Jr., the CEO of First Tee, a foundation largely funded by the USGA to introduce kids, preferably non-white, inner-city kids, to the wonders of golf, couldn’t come up with one, either.

If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it should, since his father was heavyweight champion of the world for 12 years. He was known, simply, as Joe Louis.

Now, the son is fighting a battle that sometimes seems as tough as his old man’s first fight with Max Schmeling, the battle to: a) convince inner-city kids that golf is cool, and b) to convince the rest of us that he, Tiger Woods and especially the USGA are not fighting a losing battle.

“You have to give these programs time,” Barrow said. “Before we see more blacks on the tour, a lot of things have to happen. It’s like Earl Woods once said to me, ‘It took me 20 years to create Tiger Woods.’ Give it time.”

But it has been 12 years since Tiger Woods smashed the color barrier at Augusta and more than a decade since we were assured that his inexorable rise to the head of the PGA class would revolutionize a sport perennially associated with two colors: green, as in money, and white, as in skin.

Neither of those perceptions has changed, and whether it is fair or not to burden him with undoing what golf took centuries to create, Woods has not helped matters by acting the diva. Last week, he left a practice round early to avoid mingling with spectators and Monday, was escorted to his getaway car by three state troopers.

“Early on, Tiger did many of our clinics, but lately he’s changed his model,” Barrow said. “He’s not going around the country doing clinics anymore. But it’s not his sole responsibility to change the perception. It’s all of ours, the industry as a whole.”

Mr. Barrow said that between 22 and 28 percent of the kids, between the ages of 5-18, enrolled in the First Tee program are black, as opposed to only 6 percent in all of golf, a number that includes the tour, country club memberships and what the National Golf Foundation considers regular participants in the sport.

“When I see that number, I am not discouraged one bit,” he said. “Tiger has made an impact. Come talk to me again in 20 years.”

In the meantime, in New Cassel, a neighborhood barely twice the total distance of the Black Course from Bethpage State Park — but where the population is 91 percent non-white — the U.S. Open and its rock star performer were barely making a ripple.

“I like Jordan better, because of the sneakers,” said Genaro Patricio, 16, of Westbury, N.Y. “Golf? You just hit the ball and see how far it goes. Why do millions of people like to watch that? I like football, there’s all that tackling and stuff.”

His buddy, Elvis Sosa, also 16, disagreed. “Before Tiger, golf was all white men,” he said. “The only black men you saw was the caddies. To see him up there like this, it’s outstanding, man.”

The consensus was that Woods was no better than anyone’s fifth favorite athlete, behind Kobe, LeBron, Jordan and the Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo, a position that could change, say with something as simple as a visit to the park from Woods, while he’s in the neighborhood.

That’s been the problem all along. Golf still expects the hood to come to it. Not vice versa.

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