Long before Willie Toney became assistant golf professional at the Olympic Club, a five-time U.S. Open host, he was a curious 10-year-old kid in Sacramento, intrigued by the vast expanse of green grass beyond a fence in his neighborhood off Florin Road.
Toney wandered over, watched a shot sail over the fence and eagerly retrieved the ball when the man who hit it offered him 50 cents. Soon thereafter, Toney followed the fence to discover Bing Maloney Golf Course, took some swings on the range and quickly became hooked.
One other noteworthy detail: He is African American.
“I used to get tormented a little bit,” Toney said. “Black kids in my neighborhood would say, ‘What are you doing? We don’t play golf.’ And white kids at the course would say, ‘You don’t belong out here.’ All that did was motivate me more.”
Toney’s experience, and that of other African Americans who work in golf, carries particular relevance as San Francisco prepares to host this week’s PGA Championship at Harding Park. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement gathers momentum, golf struggles to shed its discriminatory past and elitist reputation.
The PGA of America’s decision to bring its major championship to a public course (for the second consecutive year) offers a sign of progress. But it doesn’t help that only four PGA Tour pros — Tiger Woods, Harold Varner III, Joseph Bramlett and Cameron Champ — are African American. Woods, Varner and Champ are in the 156-player field at Harding.
Given this context, The Chronicle interviewed three African Americans deeply involved in the Bay Area golf scene — to learn about their life in the game and hear their thoughts on golf’s perpetual quest to become more diverse.
Toney eventually landed a part-time job at Bing Maloney, through his time at Burbank High in Sacramento. He also blossomed into a standout player, competed against future tour winners Kevin Sutherland and Scott McCarron in high school and earned a scholarship to Prairie View A&M, a historically Black college outside Houston.
Along the way, Toney received frequent reminders of his outsider status. Other players and parents would react with surprise when he posted one of the lowest scores in a junior tournament.
Once, in high school, a player from another school purposely knocked over Toney’s clubs on the range and called him the “n-word,” as he recalled. The kid relented when Toney threatened to knock his teeth down his throat if he used the word again.
Those incidents made Toney, 54, more determined than ever to pursue his passion and carve out a career in golf. He played on mini-tours for five years, decided to become a club pro and ultimately landed at Oakland’s Metropolitan Golf Links as director of golf.
Toney moved from there to the Olympic Club, where he has worked for 15 years. He raved about his experience there, saying the people at Olympic feel like extended family.
Even so, Toney is troubled by this statistic: Only 165 of the PGA of America’s nearly 29,000 professionals are African American. That’s barely more than one-half of 1%.
“That’s mind-boggling,” he said. “It almost verifies it’s been a good old boys’ club, in a sense.”
PGA officials have expanded their diversity and inclusion efforts in recent years, most notably thorough the PGA Works initiative seeking to diversify the industry’s work force. In a written summary of the program in June, the PGA of America acknowledged its membership is “demographically homogeneous, particularly as it relates to race and ethnicity.”
The PGA Tour (a separate organization) has long supported the First Tee program, designed in part to introduce golf to inner-city and under-represented kids. Still, the First Tee focuses more on teaching life skills than attracting minorities into the work force.
Toney, who serves on the board for the Northern California Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association, knows it remains a daunting task to bring more minorities into the industry when there are so few in visible jobs.
“Kids will get involved if they see some sort of representation,” Toney said. “If there are only 165 of us in a 30,000-member network, we can only do so much.”
For40 years, instructor Winslow “Woody” Woodard has been a fixture on the practice range at what is now known as Corica Park in Alameda.
Woodard, 68, grew up in Merced as the son of a professional boxer (a middleweight contender who went by Woody Winslow). Woodard caddied for his dad at age 12, soon began playing golf and landed his first job by opening a shoe shine parlor in the men’s locker room at Merced Country Club.
That didn’t last, because Woodard was too interested in the game. He started washing carts and cleaning clubs in the pro shop, turned off by team sports after an especially frustrating Little League season.
“I was a pretty good athlete on a very bad baseball team,” he said. “I was looking for something where I wouldn’t have to depend on anyone else. That’s what golf gave me — whatever I did was on me. That’s what sold me on the game.”
Woodard, like Toney, heard many jokes about an African American playing golf. This was in the 1960s, amid the civil rights movement, but Woodard learned to “listen and laugh and just play it off.”
He spent eight years as an assistant pro in Merced before moving to Galbraith Park (now Metro) in Oakland. Woodard slid over to Alameda’s 45-hole complex in 1980, despite being warned he would encounter prejudice.
Woodard didn’t find much, aside from the time he was audited by the course’s general manager in the mid-1990s. He said that happened because he’s African American.
Now, after years of staging youth clinics and giving lessons to golfers young and old, Woodard — ever upbeat — insisted more minorities are on the way.
“I really think it’s coming,” he said. “When you only see a handful people of color on tour, it makes you think there’s not very many kids (interested in golf). … But I think you’ll see more Blacks playing on the PGA Tour in the next few years.”
Marlo Bramlett saw the stares when he started playing golf in college. People weren’t necessarily wondering what he was doing there, he said, but the looks offered a none-too-subtle reminder that he “stood out.”
So Bramlett was prepared, in some ways, when his son Joseph blossomed into an elite player. Joseph Bramlett became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Amateur, at age 14 in 2002, and went on to play at Stanford before reaching the PGA Tour.
The stares mostly subsided at junior events, in Marlo Bramlett’s view, because his son was such a skilled player. But now Marlo runs Bramlett College Golf Prep, a San Jose-based program geared to standout young players, and he occasionally sees those looks again.
“When I’ve gone places with other juniors, and when one of the players is African American, that player is watched,” Bramlett said.
This doesn’t diminish his passion for the game. Bramlett, now 59, played basketball at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, then picked up golf when a friend of his then-girlfriend, now-wife (Debbie) took him to Palo Alto’s municipal course.
Even so, Bramlett sees race in golf through a realistic lens. He said Joseph was excluded from one junior tournament because he’s African American, and officials were reluctant to even have a conversation about it.
“If we can’t communicate about it, how is it going to get better?” Bramlett said. “Let’s not be uncomfortable about having a talk. … At what point do the kids get discouraged?”
He finds encouragement in the efforts of Champ, the two-time PGA Tour winner from Sacramento, and his father, Jeff. The Cameron Champ Foundation seeks to reach underserved and under-represented youth through programs in golf, baseball, STEM education and service learning.
Ron Kroichick is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ronkroichick
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