Wooding understands NTO chance

Before one of his hockey games, a 7-year-old Jeremiah Wooding used his mother's nail polish to scribble 1913 on one of his skates.

Wooding made this gesture to honor the legacy and birth year of his paternal grandfather, Joshua Ward Wooding, a man with an eighth-grade education who went on to build a successful Cleveland-based asphalt company after working in the West Virginia coal mines.

"Papa I love you. Be with me," Jeremiah wrote on one side of the skates.

"I love you. I'm with you," the elder Wooding wrote on the other side of the skate.

Papa Wooding, who passed in 1995, is still with his grandsons. Now 24, Jeremiah, and his brother, Joshua, 27, have adopted 1913 to symbolize "the opportunity we have been given due to the courage and sacrifices of those that have come before us."

When Jeremiah tees off on Thursday in the first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, he will mark his ball, as he always does, with JW1913.

The former UNLV Runnin' Rebel is the fifth recipient of the Northern Trust Open exemption, which the tournament started in 2009 for a player who represents the advancement of diversity of golf.

The exemption honored Charlie Sifford, the first black PGA Tour member and the 1969 winner of the event. Jeremiah's brother, Josh, received the exemption in 2010.

After making it to the finals of the 2012 PGA Tour Q-school, Jeremiah will be one of just two African-Americans with status on the Web.com Tour this year. Joseph Bramlett, who was given the Northern Trust Open exemption in 2011, is the other black member on the developmental circuit.

In 2010, Bramlett was the first black golfer to earn his PGA Tour card through Q-School since Adrian Stills did it in 1985.

"We are a small, small group trying to breakthrough, and this exemption is another chance at doing that," Jeremiah said. "For me to be up to bat to try to help the crew out, I'm excited to help us break through."

Jeremiah's chance for a breakthrough almost didn't happen. After excelling at golf as a small boy, he quit the game when he was 7 to concentrate on ice hockey and basketball.

"I got a little bored with the sport," he said. "I guess I won too much."

But his father, David Wooding, an emergency room physician, believes there was another reason.

"I think he stayed away from it because he saw me and his brother talking about it all the time and playing and he just needed to do something else," he said.

Jeremiah Wooding didn't play the game regularly again until the end of his junior year in high school. The golf team needed someone who could break 50. So they recruited Wooding, whom they had heard was once something of a child prodigy. By the beginning of his senior year, Jeremiah had let go of his dreams of an NBA or NHL career for a future in golf.

"I always thought that when I picked the game back up I would be able to," Jeremiah said. "I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a professional athlete. That's why I played all the sports, to try to figure out which one I liked the most."

By then, Josh Wooding was already on the USC golf team. Jeremiah wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps of playing collegiately. So in December of his senior year, he invited UNLV coach Dwaine Knight to watch him play in a tournament in Las Vegas.

Knight, a legendary putting teacher, told Wooding he wasn't good enough to play at UNLV and that he should consider junior college to get more seasoning.

"It put a little fire into me that I needed to get a little better," said Wooding, who changed Knight's mind about his immediate future that spring by qualifying for the U.S. Junior Amateur and the Junior Worlds.

Wooding would go on to have a pretty average career at UNLV.

"My college career was up and down," he said. "I had some success and then periods where I didn't have success. I didn't have the best scoring average. I didn't play the most events. But I single-handedly learned how to putt from Coach Knight."

Jeremiah avoids swing instructors. To build his game, he has studied hours of golf swings, including those of Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and, most recently, Rory McIlroy. After watching these videos, he takes a golf club in front of a big mirror to figure out the difference between "feel and real."

"I basically do it by myself because I'm a big believer in that your body will move in directions that it wants to move," Wooding said. "Having your body feel really gelled and clean will affect your golf swing and how your golf swing moves."

To stay attuned to his body and the way it impacts his golf swing, he practically lives in the gym when he's not on the golf course.

"Sometimes I just go to the gym to just watch some of the things that he can do," his father said. "Jeremiah has great balance."

One might think that Tiger was the most important role model for a black kid growing up in Riverside, Calif., but Wooding's favorite golfer was Payne Stewart. When Wooding was 5, he wore knickers like the late U.S. Open champion.

To Wooding and for a generation of aspiring tour players, Tiger's example of preparation through strength and conditioning has been maybe his most lasting imprint on the game. To hear young players talk about Tiger is to hear stories about Tiger's legendary concentration, work ethic and gym workouts.

"He was the person that I looked to as someone who did everything right," Wooding said of Tiger. "That's what I tried to emulate."

After graduating from UNLV in the spring 2011, Wooding played the National Golf Tour after failing to get past the first stage of PGA Tour Q-school. He traveled with Josh, building on their strong brotherly bond through the hardships of the mini tours.

"It was a lot of fun," Wooding said. "There were bad times about it because we were around each other a lot. We shared a room together. We ate breakfast together. We practiced together. We had dinner together.

"But if you said would you rather not have him out there, I would obviously choose to have him out there because you know that you have at least one person out there that they really cares about you."

The brothers went to Q-school together last fall, but only Jeremiah made it through to the finals, securing conditional status on the Web.com Tour. That means he could have a tough time playing a full schedule if he doesn't have some good events early in the season that kicks off later this month in Panama.

Jeremiah's turn at Riviera this week is a sad but important reminder of the dire number of minorities in the pro game. There is a very good chance that he will be the only black person other than Tiger Woods to make a field on the PGA Tour in 2013.

But Jeremiah and Joshua Wooding and the other players that have filled this exemption are building on the legacy of men such as Charlie Sifford, Ted Rhodes, Calvin Peete and Papa Wooding.

The Wooding family and the game of golf have come a long way since 1913.