Six months after Tiger Woods became the first golfer of African-American heritage to win the 1997 Masters, the PGA Tour seized on its chance to spread a game that was historically elite ' and mostly white ' to the masses.
And so began The First Tee, which PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem conceived as a way to make golf more affordable and accessible for kids of all races and economic levels.
In nearly 12 years, The First Tee has established 206 chapters in 49 states and five countries. It has reached nearly 3 million young people, including 1.3 million kids through a mandatory school program.
But there remains only one black player at the highest level of golf ' and questions whether efforts to change the games demographics are on the right course.
Its hard work, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. If you go back, there were two issues. One was there was no role model to create interest among African-American kids. That issue got handled with Tiger. But the other one, which was just as big, was access to facilities. Youve got to get golf to kids, and its a slow process.
Whether its working depends largely upon expectations.
I dont know if it was ever the intent of The First Tee to produce top-tier tour players, said Pepper Peete, director of The First Tee in Jacksonville, Fla., which serves 1,500 kids a year. The intent was to provide opportunity for growth, for exposure to the game.
But the golf coach at Savannah State University referred to his local First Tee program as a baby-sitting service.
These kids are coming from homes that are going for a half-million and up, coach Art Gelow said. I guess their parents want to go out and play tennis, or go out shopping. It appalls me.
Expectations grew from an early TV promotion for The First Tee that showed a young African-American hammering a golf tee into the concrete streets of the city, taking aim with his driver and swinging for the future. It delivered a powerful message.
Then there was the Nike commercial, showing children of all races and gender, toting golf bags around city streets and public courses, looking into the camera and saying, I am Tiger Woods.
Woods, however, has proven to be more of an exception than a blueprint.
His father, Earl Woods, introduced him to golf before he could walk. Woods won his first Junior World Championship at age 8. He understood course management before he could do long division.
Thats what causes Finchem to look more at the long haul.
Weve made some strides, Finchem said. But it took Earl 20 years to bring Tiger to that point, and thats one kid starting at age 2. Its a long, tough pull to make a huge impact on the look of the tour.
Joe Louis Barrow Jr., hired in 2000 as executive director of The First Tee, points to progress in the 2.9 million kids whom the program has reached. Many of them have gone on to play in high school, some in college.
Even so, 54 percent of those kids are white; 20 percent are black; 8.3 percent are Hispanic.
And a dozen years later, none has reached the PGA Tour.
Expectations were set high by many people in the media industry because of who Tiger was, the manner in which he came on the scene and how he dominated the scene, Barrow said. But any of the major golfers have had golf in their life for many, many years. Regardless of color, it takes time. People wanted it to happen overnight.
While the face of golf did not change, the mission statement of The First Tee did.
Its initial emphasis was to build courses and programs to make golf more affordable and accessible. Now, the mission is to impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that promote character and values through golf.
I think First Tee sold us a bill of goods, Jackson State golf coach Eddie Payton said. We got excited because we thought it was going to create the accessibility and education for the next generation of African-American golfers. They got in and said their goal was not to produce golfers, but create character through the game of golf.
Thats a crock, he said. We dont need character. You create character by going to church and from your parents. You dont need golf facilities, and money allocated to teach people to play golf, being used to create character.
Woods, however, went the same direction with his foundation.
He opened his Tiger Woods Learning Center in 2006. The focus is education, with golf only a small component. His foundation has a national golf team, but the criteria is built more around grades and community service than the ability to save par from a bunker.
My dad and I used to have this conversation, Woods said. Whats the bigger picture? Would you rather have a person play pro golf or have an impact on society? And I had this conversation with The First Tee. Its not about producing professional golfers. Its about giving them the opportunity to have life skills so they can be productive citizens.
If they choose to work hard and to become a professional golfer, so be it, he said. But give them tools and access to a game that teaches you about life.
Each chapter of The First Tee is independent and encouraged to raise money locally. Barrow said The First Tee has raised upward of $250 million, which includes annual contributions from Augusta National. The U.S. Golf Association has contributed more to First Tee chapters through its grant program than any other organization.
Even when it was created, it wasnt like the program was to identify players to compete at an elite level, USGA executive director David Fay said. Of course, you want that. Anybody involved in the game should at least be disappointed in the landscape, the number of African-Americans competing at the very highest level.
Barrow understands better than most how golf for years catered mainly to whites.
His father, the late heavyweight champion Joe Louis, was the first black to play in a PGA-sanctioned event at the 1952 San Diego Open, and he later gave financial and moral support when Charlie Sifford broke the color barrier in 1961 and joined the PGA Tour.
Barrow said The First Tee is about to launch a new program geared toward identifying the most skilled players and putting them with golf instructors at an academy in Richmond, Va.
It took 20 years for Woods to arrive, and The First Tee has been around just over half that long. Asked if it was fair to expect more black golfers at the highest level 10 years from now, Barrow said without hesitation:
Yes. You can hold me to that.