SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – When Tom Woodard heard the news, he knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t afford to miss. So on Tuesday, he flew from his home in Littleton, Colo., and arrived in time to meet Wyatt Worthington II on the range here at Baltusrol.
Woodard (above, left) posed for pictures. He shared his own experiences. And he offered a few words of advice.
After all, they are the only black club professionals who have qualified for the PGA Championship.
“To be able to come out here and reminisce and meet him,” Woodard, 60, said Wednesday morning, “it just was a perfect opportunity.”
Last month, Worthington finished sixth (6-under 282) at the PGA Professional Championship at Turning Stone to punch his ticket to the year’s final major, becoming the first black man since Woodard to accomplish the feat.
Woodard’s breakthrough came 25 years ago, at a complicated time in the sport’s history. In 1991, golf was a year removed from the controversy at Shoal Creek, which forced leaders of the major tours to examine racial diversity and accessibility for the first time.
Tiger Woods became a household name a few years later, but the introduction of an immensely popular, multiracial athlete didn’t dramatically reshape what is still seen as a predominantly white sport played by the wealthy. Harold Varner III is the only other PGA Tour member of color.
But on a micro level, at least, Woods helped solidify Worthington’s career plans, after a life-changing encounter at a clinic 15 years ago.
A promising soccer player, Worthington picked up the game after watching his father, also named Wyatt, smack balls on the range after school.
“The second ball he hit, I swear, it was just, Pewwwwwww,” the elder Wyatt said, moving his hand through the air like a missile. “He looked back at me, and I said, ‘Uh-oh.’ He hit the sweet spot. He was hooked.”
The Worthingtons had two courses within a few miles of their home in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, about 10 miles east of Columbus. Blacklick Woods was an executive course they could play for $10, but Worthington always had his eyes set on Turnberry, the big-boy venue down the road.
As a kid, Worthington practically opened and closed the range, stopping only for lunch. The story goes that the worse score he ever shot – ever – was an 86. “Talent,” his father said.
Desire, too, because the head pro at Turnberry let Worthington play the course for free, so long as he replaced his divots in the fairway and repaired his ball marks on the green.
“But I needed to see how badly he really wanted this,” his father said, “so I’d tell him that we’re going to walk to Turnberry” – about two or three miles away – and “play golf. And he didn’t say no. He threw his bag over his shoulder and we went. I’d created a monster.”
When he was 13, Worthington was introduced to Gerry Hammond, the head pro at Bridgewater Golf Course, who began working with him pro bono. What started out as drills every other week soon became a daily lesson. Since then, Hammond has become a best friend, a mentor and a confidante.
“When you get a kid like that,” Hammond said, “money is not a factor. He was the kind of kid that he set the bar, and then he was going to get to that bar and go past it.”
Then he met Tiger.
In 2001, Woods was at the height of his powers, but he often hosted junior clinics through his foundation. The community rallied together and secured the bid. That’s how Worthington first met Woods, 15 years ago Friday, in Columbus.
“My palms were sweaty, just anticipating what was going to happen,” Wyatt said. “But he was just a normal guy, like everybody else.”
Said Hammond: “When you’re in that type of environment like that, and you’re a young kid and a golfer and you want to be great, the impact of that, I can’t even imagine. To share that time and those insights with you, it just gives you confidence.”
And so when he returned home from the clinic that night, Worthington told his parents that he’d made up his mind: “I’d like for that to be my lifestyle.”
Sure enough, Worthington graduated in 2010 from Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C., with a degree in PGA Golf Management.
Almost every PGA professional aspired to play on the big tour at some point, but for a variety of reasons (time, access, money) they take a detour. After college, and following a stint at Jefferson Country Club, Worthington returned home and began working alongside Hammond at The Golf Depot in Gahanna. He has come full circle: Much of his time is spent teaching and mentoring promising junior golfers, just as he was 15 years ago.
In the past three years, Worthington’s scores have dropped, his focus has sharpened, and he’s dedicated himself to working out, eating right and preparing for the next level. He came up one shot shy of qualifying for the PGA at last year’s Professional National Championship, after missing a 12-footer on the last hole. But this time, after a third-round 69, Hammond felt more confident in his pupil’s chances – so much so that he flew to Verona, N.Y., to watch the final round in person.
“I knew,” he said. “I knew.”
Worthington shot 69 on the final day and made the cut by four shots.
The past few days have been a whirlwind. He has received so many interview requests, from so many outlets, that Worthington went into a media shutdown as of Wednesday morning. At some point he had to begin, you know, preparing for the tournament. He figures to have plenty of interested observers this week.
“It’s huge,” Hammond said, “and it’s bigger than him, bigger than all of us. We know what the game looks like, and it shouldn’t look like this. The world doesn’t look like this. But it takes time, and him pioneering is just the start.”
Why it took a quarter century for another black club professional to qualify for the PGA is a difficult question to answer.
“It’s an expensive game,” Hammond said, “and resources are only available to so many. Our world is like this, the haves and the have-nots, and some slip through the cracks.”
Woodard, the qualifier in 1991, said that it’s simply a numbers game – there are roughly 28,000 PGA club pros and about 15,000 courses in the U.S. “Supply and demand,” he shrugged. “The industry is tough.”
But Woodard is hopeful that young black professionals, and PGA members, will be encouraged by Worthington’s appearance here, that they’ll see that they, too, can become a club pro and still enjoy a fulfilling, competitive playing career.
“What I love about this game,” he said, “is that nobody gave him a spot or chose him to play here. There were no shortcuts. He had to earn it.”