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Where are America's black golfers?

By Will Tidey, for CNN
  • Joseph Bramlett is the first African-American since 1985 through PGA Q-School
  • Bramlett and Tiger Woods will be the only two players of black descent on the tour in 2011
  • Lack of sponsorship is blamed for the lack of black players progressing
  • Bramlett and Woods both graduated from Stanford, and both have mixed-race parents

(CNN) -- When Tiger Woods became a household name, his success was expected to break down cultural and racial barriers in golf and usher in a generation of African-American stars. But the revolution has yet to materialize.

Fourteen years into Woods' professional career, there are now fewer African-American players on the PGA Tour than were in 1976 -- when the former world No. 1 was barely walking and Augusta National was still to admit its first black member.

So when Stanford University graduate Joseph Bramlett became the first African-American in 25 years to advance past the PGA Tour's qualifying school, his success highlighted golf's failure to capitalize on the Woods phenomenon.

"The issue is sponsorship and funding," said Debert Cook, publisher of African American Golfer's Digest.

"African-American players do fine through school and college, where scholarships help them support the development of their game, but when they emerge on the other side they simply don't have the resources to practice," Cook said.

It's extremely hard to fund practicing on PGA Tour standard facilities without serious sponsorship behind you
--Debert Cook, African American Golfer's Digest

"It's extremely hard to fund practicing on PGA Tour standard facilities without serious sponsorship behind you. And that sponsorship just isn't there for African-American players."

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Woods and the 22-year-old Bramlett, whose mother is white, will be the only two players of black descent amid approximately 250 competitors on the PGA Tour next season. It's a startling statistic given the Tiger factor, and the fact there were several African-Americans on the circuit in 1976.

The First Tee

PGA Tour bosses have not let the issue pass them by. In 1997, the same year Woods became the first African-American to win the Masters, the Tour was heavily involved in launching "The First Tee" program, a not-for-profit organization that sets out to provide "young people of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop life-enhancing values such as confidence, perseverance and judgment through golf and character education."

Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour's executive vice-president of communications and international affairs, said the program has been a success.

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"The First Tee, while more acutely focused on development of life skills than player development, has done a wonderful job of introducing the game to millions of young people through its individual Chapters and Golf in Schools program," Votaw said.

"Many of these kids are minorities. The PGA Tour and our tournaments continue to support The First Tee, providing significant financial donations as well as providing clinics and free admission to tournaments."

The PGA Tour also runs an internship program, now in its 20th year, which has helped introduce around 500 college juniors and seniors to golf. Votaw says many of the participants are from minority backgrounds, and approximately 20% go on to achieve "full-time business positions in golf and sport."

Where will funding come from?

But magazine publisher Cook maintains the PGA Tour could be doing more to increase the number of African-American players competing at the highest level.

"Joseph Bramlett benefited from being at Stanford, and moving in those circles, but what we need is a support system for players graduating from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)," she said.

It is a function of any golfer, no matter what his ethnicity is, to develop his game to the point that he can succeed at this level
--PGA Tour official Ty Votaw

"At the moment black players are being forced to write to millionaire black celebrities and businessmen to get funding, but nobody knows who they are. So they're never going to get it that way.

"There are standout players who are ready to perform, and they just need the financial support to further their careers. If that happened you'd see another 10-12 black players on the PGA Tour within the next three or four years."

Votaw said the PGA Tour would be "thrilled" to achieve a larger African-American membership, and pointed towards to an increasing diversity on the circuit as proof it is embracing minority groups.

"The PGA Tour itself has become much more international in makeup over the past decade -- 77 international players from 21 countries in 2010," Votaw said.

"So while there perhaps were a half-dozen African-American members of the PGA Tour in 1976, there is a broader range of ethnicity on the PGA Tour than 25 years ago."

An elite competition

Votaw added that while the PGA Tour would continue to support initiatives designed to increase African-American participation, it remains focused on delivering an elite competition for the best players.

"It is important to recognize from the outset that the PGA Tour is a true meritocracy -- players earn and maintain their membership based solely on their ability to compete," Votaw said.

"It is a function of any golfer, no matter what his ethnicity is, to develop his game to the point that he can succeed at this level, whether it is through college competition or the mini-tours.

"Ultimately, it is whether an individual has the game to compete against the best players in the world."

Bramlett clearly does, and being the first African-American since Adrian Stills in 1985 to make it through qualifying school he better get used to comparisons with the most famous face in golf.

Aside from both being African-Americans with mixed-race parents, both Bramlett and Woods graduated from Stanford and both were hitting golf balls from age of the three.

They played practice rounds together at Pebble Beach before this year's U.S. Open, and Bartlett competed in the World Junior Golf Challenge in a team sponsored by the Tiger Woods Foundation.

Woods sent a message to Bramlett via social networking website Twitter shortly after he earned his PGA Tour card: "Congrats to Joe Bramlett for making it through Q School. Amazing feat considering he sat out a whole year with wrist injury. Can't wait to play with him next season."