As yet another day on the PGA Tour passes without the gargantuan presence of Tiger Woods between the ropes, one mini-tour player longs for a meeting with the world’s No. 1 player. “I would love to talk to Tiger in private,” says 24-year old Joshua Wooding, “about what it’s like to be on the only person of color on the PGA Tour.”
Wooding, a former USC golfer, will play this week at the Northern Trust Open as the 2010 recipient of the Northern Trust exemption, awarded annually by the tournament to a player who represents the advancement of diversity in the game. Last year Vincent Johnson, a former Oregon State golfer, received the inaugural exemption when it was named for Charlie Sifford, the Jackie Robinson of golf, who won the tournament in 1969.
Wooding and Jackson are part of a close-knit group of young and struggling black touring pros that includes Tim O’Neal, Andy Walker, Madalitso Muthiya, George Bradford, Kevin Hall and Stephen Reed. “Within this group there are some accomplished players,” says Wooding, who is making his PGA Tour debut, “and the common denominator among us all is the lack of finances. For a lot of us it has been a real struggle to stay out there.”
I know these players personally. Every year I find myself asking questions and writing in these pages about the dismal state of pro black golfers. (Before Tiger, Adrian Stills in 1985 was the last African-American to earn his Tour card. One black player, Muthiya, has status on the Nationwide Tour.) I know how they all put money together from family and friends to play the hardscrabble mini-tours and to get to Q-School. I played junior golf with O’Neal and Walker. I have watched them both teeter on the edge of earning their Tour cards. I know that the golf course doesn’t know the race of the player and that a good score will always get its fair due. But black golfers do face unique obstacles on their journey toward the dream.
“There are guys I played with in college who didn’t have better resumes than me who are getting a lot more financial support to play,” says Wooding, who last fall missed the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School by one shot and will play this year on the Hooters Tour.
Yet Wooding isn’t griping or asking for handouts. He learned from his paternal grandfather, Joshua Ward Wooding, the value of hard work and perseverance. With just an eighth-grade education, the elder Wooding worked in the West Virginia coal mines before building a successful asphalt construction company in Cleveland, where he raised Joshua’s father, David, who is now a emergency room physician.
“My grandfather was the first generation of Wooding men to be free of slavery and sharecropping,” says Wooding. To honor their grandfather, who died in 1995, Joshua and his brother, Jeremiah, have adopted 1913, the year of his birth, as a special date to symbolize “the opportunity we have been given due to the courage and sacrifices of those that have come before us.”
This is an unusually rich narrative for a pro golfer. Wooding’s insights and understanding of his family’s arc make you want to root for him. Regardless of what he shoots this week, Wooding is a great example of the best values of the sport and hope that one day the game will look as diverse as the rest of America. Perhaps when Tiger does come back he could give Wooding some swing tips, answer his questions about being an anomaly on Tour and maybe even write him a nice check.