ST. PETERSBURG — In the breeze of a recent Saturday afternoon, eight children stand in a circle around instructor Rick Waltman at Twin Brooks Golf Course, oblivious to the traffic rushing by on 22nd Avenue S and the world beyond.
It's time to start their two-hour training with a game called Rules Master. One by one, Waltman asks the boys and girls — ages 7 to 14 and each African-American — questions about golf and life, a little scene that is all part of a big issue in the future complexion of the sport.
Get a question wrong and you step back from the circle, until only one youngster remains — rewarded with a gold card that can be redeemed for a power drink or logo golf ball inside the pro shop.
"Name three areas of respect," he asks.
"Respect yourself, others and your surroundings."
"How much time to look for a lost ball?"
Maximum amount of clubs you're allowed to have in your bag?
The kids are hanging tough. And so it goes at another session of the First Tee of St. Petersburg, a program supported by LPGA Tour pro and Seminole resident Brittany Lincicome, and one of several chapters in the bay area and among 204 nationwide. First Tee, under the umbrella of the World Golf Foundation, teaches children core values and life skills through the game of golf. About half of its 2.2-million participants in 48 states come from diverse backgrounds.
Minority participation in golf stands at about 16 percent — 7 percent among African-Americans — according to a National Golf Foundation study in 2003. But First Tee is helping bridge the gap by making the traditionally expensive pursuit more accessible and affordable to lower-income children.
"For 99 percent of the kids here, the sports they've played are basketball or football," Waltman says. "Golf is not going to be on the list. But they all know who Tiger Woods is. If there wasn't a Tiger, there would probably be no connection."
Woods, 32, exerts a powerful pull on the minority youngsters at Twin Brooks. The point is echoed at the driving range, where Rico McMillan teaches son Wesley, 7, and friend Jevon, 4, the basics of a swing. "Tiger has everything to do with it," McMillan says. "All people are motivated by those you see that look like you."
Yet therein lies the problem. Woods — whose father was black and mother is Asian — remains the only player with African-American ancestry on the PGA Tour since his rookie year of 1996. There have been no African-American women full time on the LPGA Tour in that span.
What can change that?
We spoke to six respected authorities, each representing a different piece of the complex puzzle. Some of the voices expressed frustration, some optimism. Others think new steps must be taken if the face of the game is ever to truly change.
Listen for yourself.
Collegiate coaching guru
Greatness runs in the family. Late younger brother Walter will forever be remembered as the sensational running back for the Chicago Bears and a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Although Payton had a less spectacular pro football career, he will go down as a pioneer in black collegiate golf.
Monday in Palm Beach, Payton will be inducted into the African-American's Golf Hall of Fame, honoring his 20 years of guiding young golfers as men's and women's coach at Jackson State in Mississippi. He is a role model and a barrier breaker — leading his men into the NCAA region tournament hosted by Michigan after the 1995-96 season. In so doing, Payton's squad became the first from the historically black college and university ranks to compete in a major Division I event.
Payton, 56, has seen progress over the years. But in his eyes, progress has stalled and the system is not producing enough new African-Americans with the potential to make the PGA Tour.
"Tiger's lived up to the billing as the greatest golfer ever," says Payton, who has led his men's teams to 13 of the past 18 Minority Championships and 18 straight Southwestern Athletic Conference titles in 1989-2006 and 20 total. The women have 11 SWAC titles.
"When he came on the scene, there weren't any (African-Americans) on the PGA Tour, about four playing on the senior tour and no women playing on any of the tours. Now, about 12 years later, we have one African-American competing regularly. Tiger."
Payton laments a lack of promising young players heading into the HBCU pool. "We're just not getting the quality or the caliber of kids at the historically black colleges," he says. "We're not getting kids who have the ability to go to the next level. And three or four with potential are being siphoned off by the Division I major schools."
Payton also wishes more was being done to develop the games of preteen African-American golfers, beyond the life-skills mission of First Tee and its outreach to all minorities.
"The kids who would have been most influenced by Tiger's arrival would have been 7 or 8, just getting started," he says. "Where are they now? They're not where they should be." He says the development of young black players, specifically, has taken a step backward.
"I think people are happy trotting Tiger out and looking at what a difference he's made," he says. "But he's only one person. You've got a billion-dollar industry that's not doing diddly."
Meanwhile, Payton continues to do what he can to encourage black golfers at the college level — and that includes the 22nd annual PGA National Minority Collegiate Golf Championship at Port St. Lucie, where 51 colleges and universities, an increase of 13 from last year, are participating this weekend. He had a hand in founding the event with Bill Dickey and others.
"We created our own championship," he says, "to give our kids an opportunity."
Joe Louis Barrow Jr.
First man of the First Tee
His mission is to help give minority youngsters a fighting chance in life through golf — and he knows a little about fighting.
His father is late heavyweight boxing champion and sports legend Joe Louis. Barrow's fondest memories of his dad, a decent golfer, were on the greens.
"Because that's when people couldn't ask for an autograph, couldn't interrupt us," he says. "So the golf course was a haven for me to understand who he was. And he really quizzed me on what I was going to do with my life, what was important to me, how I was going to succeed."
He has found plenty of success, notably as president and CEO of Izzo Systems, which designed and launched the double strap for golf bags. But since 2000, Barrow's greatest success has been helping youngsters succeed in the First Tee, the national program founded in 1997.
"I think the First Tee continues to reach out to young people who otherwise would not have access to the game," he says from his St. Augustine office. "We're seeing many of them taking on a lifelong, solid interest in the game of golf. Many are now playing on high school teams when they wouldn't have five or six years ago. Many are going on to play college golf, which they weren't doing several years ago."
Some, Barrow adds, are starting to choose careers as PGA club professionals — all part of a chain starting with the First Tee.
"I remember being on a television show with Earl Woods eight years ago, and I was asked the question: 'When are we going to see more minorities on the PGA and LPGA Tour?' And before I could answer, Earl said, 'Well, it took me 20 years to create Tiger. Why don't you give these programs a chance?' "
Today, the First Tee has more than 200 chapters, with more than 600 facilities offering programming. "We've reached 2.2-million young people, we're in 48 states, and we have a national school program that has put us in over 2,000 elementary schools," he says. "We're taking golf and life skills — such as how to set goals, have confidence in yourself, manage your emotions and trust your judgment — to where the young people are."
But will the First Tee lead one day to more minorities on the pro tours?
"If you increase the overall number of people involved in an activity, over time, some of those individuals will surface and choose to pursue it at the highest level," Barrow says. "That's not just about desire and interest; it's about skill sets and drive. But I'm optimistic that over time there will be young people playing on the PGA and LPGA Tour who originated from the First Tee."
A golf writer's view
Few have a broader perspective on the issue than Golf Digest senior writer Pete McDaniel, co-author of Training a Tiger with Earl Woods, late father of the golf superstar; collaborator with Tiger Woods on How I Play Golf; and author of Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf.
McDaniel says the situation is far worse than it was 30 or 40 years ago. "At any one PGA Tour stop, you might have a half-dozen or a dozen African-American players attempting to play that week," he says. "Some were members of the PGA Tour, some were Monday qualifiers. That's what we refer to as the golden age of African-Americans in golf."
It was a time when black players could come up through the caddie ranks, learning the game as they went. But when the caddie system changed, it eliminated a vital pipeline into the game.
"You do have a lot of junior golf programs, but I have found that there comes a point of progress where these players hit a wall," he says. "They get as good as they're going to get, and they find out the game is not as easy as they thought it was. It takes a lot more dedication and quite frankly a break or two to get to the next level. They get discouraged and they quit. That's a problem we have across the board, regardless of race."
With a smaller pool of young African-American players, the problem is magnified. "With rare exception, most of 'em just decide to do something else or they go to college," McDaniel says. "And if they can't get a scholarship to a majority university, they attend a historically black college and university (HBCU), which is a totally different level of competition. If you're trying to pursue a pro golf career, HBCU's aren't going to be beneficial."
To McDaniel, the answer is simple: "It starts with junior golf. You have to introduce black kids and other minorities to the game as youngsters in the amateur ranks. And as the base grows, so will the number of them who eventually make it."
McDaniel is pushing an idea he thinks would do wonders — an academy for minorities along the lines of the IMG's David Ledbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton.
Who funds such an academy?
"We always go to corporations, and I'm not saying we don't do that, but on the Fortune 500 list, I guarantee you we have 50 African-Americans," McDaniel says. "If 50 of them ante up $500,000 to a million dollars each, that would be the seed money to not only start this academy but keep it running in perpetuity."
of junior golf
For three decades, his heart has been with the juniors.
In the early 1960s, the retired real estate and insurance man from Arizona got involved with the Western States Golf Association, made up of 1,500 predominantly African-American golfers in six states. From 1981 to 1983, he served as president and created a WSGA junior tournament that continues today. Another major undertaking is the Bill Dickey Invitational Junior Golf Championship at Disney World, showcasing minority juniors from around the nation The ninth annual event is June 25-27.
"A kid may be a good player in their local community, and he may only see one or two African-American or minority players participating," Dickey says. "But at Disney, we have 30-40 of the best. Kids who thought they were the best black junior golfer in the country suddenly find out they're not. It's challenging."
Dickey says the experience can become an important building block as they move forward with their games in college. But providing funding for promising young players is also vital, and he has raised well more than $2-million for college scholarships.
He has long embraced the idea of a Ledbetter-type academy: "Most of these kids, when they get to be 12 or 13, suddenly find out their game's not ready for the level of competition they're in. Because most of them haven't trained on proper facilities or had financial help from parents or somebody to compete in quality events. You need a strong program to get them to another level and keep them competitive."
Dickey, now 80, suffered a mild stroke this year but is doing well. Still, he wonders who will carry on his mission.
"I've seen programs around the country that just have kind of disappeared," he says. "The people with the passion who started the programs move on or get older, and all of a sudden the programs are gone. People ask me all the time, 'Who are you gonna turn this over to?' Well, it's just difficult to find somebody who has the same passion I've had over the years."
Minority golf group leader
The National Minority Golf Foundation was founded in 1995 with the goal of getting more people of color involved not just in the game but the industry of golf. Barbara Douglas was the organization's enthusiastic executive director, who was quoted in a newspaper story eight years ago about her hopes for diversifying golf: "We're just past the starting line."
But now the line is hazy — and Douglas and her organization are no longer in the race. Four years ago, the foundation, under the auspices of the World Golf Foundation, was moved from Arizona to Florida, and Douglas, its driving force, was unable to go. The group was never restaffed and no longer exists — a tangible blow to progress, Douglas says.
"That's a great loss because we were working on internships and having quite a bit of success," she says. "Internships lead to employment, and we were beginning to have success in both those areas. I don't think very much progress has been made over the past few years. And I think in a lot of cases we've lost ground."
Douglas' goal had been to get more minorities into golf manufacturing jobs, college programs, associations, running courses. Only a small fraction of minorities hold such jobs, she says, adding, "That's more disappointing to me than the number of players out there."
Douglas championed another initiative — a 10-week summer program for juniors that would focus on golf skills as well as academic preparation and nutrition. But funding never materialized for the program, and it faded.
"That's the kind of program we need out there," she says.
Despite the setbacks, Douglas does see one sign of hope: a recent change in leadership at the World Golf Foundation, with her former Minority Golf Foundation board chairman, Steve Mona, taking charge.
"I'm hopeful that his focus on diversity, and the support I received from him, that things could start to change," she says, "with some semblance of a foundation coming back into being."
PGA diversity chief
The director of business and community relations for the PGA of America — separate from the PGA Tour — is optimistic.
His organization supports programs to increase minority involvement in golf on many fronts: supporting the First Tee, providing grants to introduce youngsters to the game, drawing from PGA membership to provide instruction, assisting programs geared to inner-city teens and young adults such as Midnight Golf in Detroit.
"These individuals typically have no support system, and we're introducing them to the game, and from there, they're going off to college to be more productive citizens," he says. "We're using golf to redirect their lives the way First Tee does. Now that doesn't mean that they are going to become PGA pros, but we're giving young adults and kids hope through the game of golf, and giving them options they didn't have before."
Ellison also points to the PGA National Minority Collegiate Golf Championship. Since last year, promising collegians are identified in the first two rounds during a "playability test." Graduating seniors who pass the test are offered a scholarship for an accelerated program for becoming a PGA pro — not a PGA Tour player, but a teaching pro.
"The process allows us to get more minority golf professionals out there," he says. "And they can work in the industry as they start to develop their game."
Ellison says the quality of golfers at the minority tournament today is far better than it was 10 years ago. "Our research is showing that some of these kids competing now on the collegiate level play more junior golf," he says.
To Ellison, as with Barbara Douglas, one key question is how to infuse golf's business side with more diversity. "Our target area for growth is actually minorities and females," he says.
Last year, the PGA conducted a merchandise show and introduced an array of minority-owned companies to golf's business operations. "It was a tremendous success," he says. "The thinking is, if we can get more diversity on the economic side, it's also going to feed the diversity on the participation side."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.