by Sam Crenshaw
Golf’s Diversity on Display at Augusta.
This year’s Masters tournament has the look and feel of the tournaments in years past . COVID-19 forced the 2019 Masters to be played in the fall and the 2020 event was played before limited spectators.
Now the Masters patrons would be allowed to return in a full capacity to witness one of sports grand spectacles at a location of timeless beauty. There was but one thing left to make the tradition unlike any other be a memory for the ages and it happened on Tuesday of Masters week, when five-time Masters Champion, Tiger Woods announced that he would play in the 2022 Masters. Woods miraculous recovery from a near fatal automobile accident to participate at Augusta , was like a gift to the game, the tournament, television networks and even the most casual of fans.
Tiger Woods makes people watch . He won the Masters for the first time 25 years ago and we all watched his star continue to rise.He was ,to my recollection , the first golfer to be marketed to children in Nike’s “I am
Tiger Woods” commercial.
He was a dream come true for men of my father’s generation. He thought it unbelievable that a black man could win golf tournaments with a white man as his caddie. Woods changed to way the Augusta National course looks. Most years changes were made to make to course more challenging. They called it Tiger-proofing , but he just kept on winning. Woods even changed they way golfers dress. Those ugly plaid pants are a thing off the past, Thank the Lord .
Woods announcement was music to the ears of the media and why not. Regardless who won the tournament, the story of the 2022 Masters would be Woods unlikely participation . At the height of his dominance Woods enjoyed worldwide popularity the likes of which we had not seen for an individual sport athlete since the heyday of Muhammad Ali. But there was another thing that Woods entrance into the Masters tournament did. With Cameron Champ and Harold Varner III already in the tournament, Woods announcement that he would participate meant that for the first time ever three African- American golfers would play in the same Masters tournament. Whats even more amazing is that at this time a year ago, Woods was confined to his bed as Augusta National payed tribute to Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to play in the Masters , in 1975.
I went to work in Augusta in 1986 and left in 1991. During that time Calvin Peete, who didn’t pick up a club until he was 23, and former Morgan State football player ,Jim Thorpe ,were the only black participants in the Masters . After 1987, there were no black participants in the Masters until Woods arrived in 1995. Woods would be the lone African-American participant until ,former Texas A&M star Cameron Champ made his Masters debut in 2020.
A three-time winner on the PGA Tour, Champ was inspired by Augusta National’s gift to establish a Women’s golf program at Augusta’s Paine College, to get involved with an HBCU. The Cameron Champ Foundation has donated funds to establish golf scholarships at Prairie View A&M University in honor of his grandfather Mack Champ. There is more , last year the Sacramento native’s foundation partnered with SAP during Black History Month. Each week a donation was made to small Black-owned businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Varner, player college golf at East Carolina and turned pro in 2012. Varner earned his tour card in 2015 , becoming the first African-American golfer to advance to the PGA tour from the Web.com Tour. His win at the Saudi International, in February, boosted his ranking inside the top 50, securing his first Masters invitation.
I the wake of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent civil unrest that followed, practically every sports league promised to take measures aimed at diversity and inclusion. Well the fact that Woods, Champ and Varner are in Augusta and playing in golf’s grandest event provides a portrait of diversity. The fact that the three are together for the Masters is historic and it should be inspirational. Masters invitations are earned , not given. Their presence at Augusta reflects their talent and determination, and the sacrifices made by their families to make sure they had every chance to succeed in a sport that is still viewed as a white ,country club sport that is priced out of the range of most of Black America.
I was at Augusta ten years ago, when a member of the media asked Woods, where were the young African-American golfers. Were young people who had been inspired by his success and dominance at least trying golf. Tiger had no real answer except to say that more African-American children were playing the game, and it didn’t mean they would play on the pro tour.
Well, I’m not sure where that reporter is today, but the next wave of Black golfers is slowly starting to arrive. How ironic that it would be reflected at the Masters tournament, an event that seemed unattainable for Black golfers for decades. The Augusta National Golf Club is a place of unmatched beauty. It’s azaleas , dogwoods and pines are breathtaking with white cottages and clubhouse that harken back to a bygone area. It’s designed to look like a place where time stands still and for the longest time, it was true. The presence of Tiger Woods, Cameron Champ, and Harold Varner III show that things can change and that time can move, even at the Masters. For me , it really didn’t matter who won the tournament, history has already been made and it is most worthy of a celebration.