The history of African-American golf has some notable milestones. In 1961, the fall of the PGA's caucasian-only clause gave men like Charlie Sifford and Pete Brown a chance to play on the PGA Tour. In 1975, Lee Elder became the first African-American to play in the Masters. (Four years later, he was the first person of color to compete in a Ryder Cup.)
These milestones might only be known to hardcore golf fans, but everybody remembers Tiger Woods embracing his dad after winning the 1997 Masters. What Jim Nantz called "a win for the ages" had a unique significance for African-Americans like the World War II veteran who told me that Tiger's win felt as good as when Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling in their 1938 rematch at Yankee Stadium. After Woods's first victory at Augusta National, many African-American parents saw golf as a sport their children could play, just as Barack Obama's election made the presidency seem possible.
This week we saw another milestone as 22-year-old Joseph Bramlett multi-racial, Californian and Stanford-educated like Tiger earned his PGA Tour card after six grueling rounds on two cold and windswept courses at the Orange County National Golf Center, outside Orlando. It had been 25 years since the last African American, Adrian Stills, had made it to the PGA Tour through Q-school.
Since Tiger's emergence, we've heard a lot of discussion in the golf world about who would be the next great African-American player. For a long time, it appeared the "one" might be Tim O'Neal, who would have earned his Tour card in 2000 if not for a bogey/triple-bogey finish at Q-school. Since then, however, O'Neal has floundered, playing the Nationwide Tour sporadically and smaller mini-tours in the southeast.
It's too soon to say how well Bramlett will do on the PGA Tour in 2011. He'll be playing unfamiliar golf courses, and he'll be on the road for 30-35 weeks. Without question, he'll have some missteps, and he'll miss some cuts. But he won't be alone. The African-American golf world, which is barely visible to the mainstream golf world, will be with Bramlett every step of the way: in the galleries, following his rounds online and watching him on TV. The next time you're following Tiger on the golf course, take notice of all the African-Americans behind the ropes with you.
When I met Bramlett earlier this year at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he sounded like Tiger in 1997, when Woods reminded the world of the Charlie Siffords and Lee Elders who had paved the way for him. Asked over and over again about his achievement at Q-school this year, Bramlett replied, "It's been too long."
When Bramlett was in high school, he played for several years in the Bill Dickey Invitational, a junior tournament for the top minority golfers in the country. Through his foundation, Dickey has awarded more than $2.9 million in college scholarships to more than 1,000 minority golfers. (I am a 1993 scholarship recipient.)
I visited with Dickey, who is in his early 80s, in Phoenix a few weeks before Q-school, and he told me to watch out for Bramlett. Dickey was as excited about Bramlett as he had been when Sifford, Elder, Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe all became successful on the PGA Tour. He knew them all.
Now Dickey has Bramlett to root for, and the rest of the golf world should do the same. Professional golf should reflect the diversity of America. Let's hope that Bramlett's ascent this fall will mark the start of an influx of African Americans to the PGA Tour.
As Q-school came to a close and Bramlett made that last eight-footer to finish at 11-under and earn his card, I got a call from Dickey, who asked, "Did he make it? Did he make it?"
When I told him that Bramlett had made it with a shot to spare, Dickey was overjoyed. For a moment we said nothing and just took in the totality of the moment.
After that I traded texts with Bramlett's father, Marlo, who was so worried that he couldn't sleep the night before his son's final round. Marlo said he hadn't made the trip to Florida because he didn't want to make his son nervous. When I gave him the good news, Marlo said simply, "You know what I'm feeling."
I did know. For Marlo, as a dad and an African-American, his son's achievement was more than just a success on the golf course. It was another important milestone in the long, hard road toward a better and more diverse pro game.