At this stage, it no longer is about what he does on the golf course. He has done more than anyone for golf. Ever. Disagree?
Consider that he has won 14 major championships, changed the way players condition themselves, elevated player winnings into the stratosphere, skyrocketed television ratings and generally revolutionized the sport.
You cannot say that about anyone else. Not Byron Nelson or Sam Snead or Bobby Jones or Jack Nicklaus.
And so, the reality is this: Tiger Woods does not have to win another tournament, much less a major, to have the most important career in his sport. He can toil on for years, competing at a high level and never hoist another trophy over his head—and he will not be eclipsed.
His influence on the game in general and African Americans in particular has been phenomenal. Some numbers: estimates by those who compute these kinds of things indicate the number of African-American recreational golfers at around 800,000 when Woods burst upon the scene in 1996. Now, that number is more than two million.
This is the true Tiger Woods effect.
“Golf is a sport that you have to be a learned person,” said Otis Smith, the interim head pro at Charlie Yates Golf Course in Atlanta. “You have to be exposed to it, and the reality is that most blacks were not exposed to golf growing up. If you’re never exposed to it, you can’t like it.
“Tiger has brought the sport to the masses, which is more than anyone else can say. The exposure he commanded brought golf mainstream. . . Now, because blacks have seen someone who looks like them on the golf course on television, we have been exposed to it and drawn to the game.”
As a result, golf courses in urban areas that at one time were dominated by white golfers are now loaded with African Americans honing their skills. All inspired by one player.
“I see African Americans playing golf every day,” said William Lewis, head pro at John A. White Park in the historic Cascade section of Atlanta, “and I would say 60 percent of them are new to the game. They saw Tiger Woods on the course and decided to pick it up. He’s had a huge impact, bigger than anyone probably can measure, on the sport, especially in the African-American community.
“That’s an unbelievable legacy he created. And for someone who has played golf all his life, it’s a legacy that’s as important to me as what he has done as a player.”
In other words, you cannot measure when a man opens up an exclusionary game to an entire race.
African-American youths around the nation have taken up golf in remarkable numbers. Speak to one or speak to 100, to a kid they will tell you they know of only one golfer.
“Tiger Woods,” 11-year-old Jamaal Ritchie said when asked why he took up golf. When asked how he recognized Woods, he said, “Because he’s the only black golfer. When I saw him, he had on a red shirt. It was a Sunday. And he won. And I thought I would try it. Now, I like it.”
His response echoed those of more than two dozen kids at John A. White Golf Course on a recent Saturday morning. Those kids participate in the First Tee Program, designed originally to introduced inner-city (read: African American) kids to golf and all the life skills and discipline that come with playing the game. It was a grand idea that has turned away from its initial premise.
“Now,” Smith of Charlie Yates said, “there are more white kids in the program than black kids. I mean, the First Tee of Hollywood? Come on. It has definitely helped minority kids. But the original intent of the program has changed. Once (whites) saw how it was helping our kids, they jumped in and made sure their kids could get free lessons.”
All in all, the hope is that the increase of African Americans will produce another African American of prominence on the PGA Tour. Why no one consistently has joined Woods comes down to something other than talent, Smith said.
“I’ve gone through it,” he said, “and it’s about money. White players at prestigious clubs will get members to invest in their chance to make it on tour. They’ll donate a certain amount of money for their tournament entry fees and say, ‘Go out there. Give it a try.’ They don’t make a loan. They just give it to them. I’m 40 now and past my prime, but I knew blacks who saw I could play, but when asked about helping support my career would say, ‘You ain’t getting rich off of me.’ There’s just not black money to support black players.
“I know Will Smith was supporting (black golfer) Tim O’Neal. Other than that, it just doesn’t happen. And it’s sad. When we start supporting our players who have as much potential as whites. . . that’s when we’ll see more of us on the tour.”
Jason Bramless, 23, earned his PGA card this year. Shasta Averyhardt is the only African-American women on the LPGA Tour (Woods’ niece, Cheyenne, turned pro this week). But that’s it.
It could be next year or years from now before someone who looks like Tiger Woods makes a real splash in pro golf. He or she might not win 72 times as Woods has so far or earn more than $1 billion or become a worldwide figure. But whatever happens, Tiger Woods will be at the heart of it, whether he calls himself black or not.
Curtis Bunn is a best-selling novelist and national award-winning sports journalist who has worked at The Washington Times, NY Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.