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Friday, January 21, 2011
Joseph Bramlett, Tiger Woods and race

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

Joseph Bramlett's arrival on the PGA Tour naturally sparks comparison to Tiger Woods.

Both are biracial. Both attended Stanford. Both have black fathers who heavily influenced them.

Bramlett, who made the cut in his debut at the Sony Open in Hawaii last week, has routinely credited Woods for being an important influence on his career.

But even as Bramlett's professional career is just beginning, I see a major distinction between Bramlett and Woods, who are the only golfers of African-American heritage on the PGA Tour.

Joseph Bramlett and Tiger Woods
Joseph Bramlett and Tiger Woods played a practice round together at the U.S. Open in June.

So far, the 22-year-old Bramlett hasn't shown any discomfort in addressing race. He appeared on ESPN's "First Take" after becoming the first African-American golfer to graduate from Q-school since Adrian Stills did it 25 years ago; and within 15 seconds, he was asked about the racial significance of what he accomplished.

"It means a whole lot," said Bramlett, who has a white mother. "Frankly, it's been too long since we've had another African-American out on the PGA Tour. It's a thrill and an honor for me to put an end to that."

The key here is that Bramlett not only embraced the larger importance of what it means for him to be a member of the Tour, but he immediately welcomed being identified as an African-American.

Why is this significant?

Because Bramlett's idol, Tiger Woods, hasn't always shown he's at ease when asked to address race -- except when it involves promoting Nike.

Tiger infamously described himself to Oprah Winfrey as "Cablinasian" -- a combination of Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian -- when asked to explain his racial heritage. Count me among those African-Americans who interpret that as Tiger's attempt to distance himself from being labeled an African-American.

It's been more than a decade since Tiger introduced us to the term "Cablinasian," and now I think of it in different terms.

Tiger seems fine with being the answer to history questions and thought of as a transcendent racial ideal, but his utopia seems to be to remain race-neutral even though he's viewed through lenses that have been shaped by race.

Hey, the race battleground isn't for everyone.

Bramlett, though, isn't making the racial distinctions Tiger made, and that's something that will undoubtedly connect Bramlett with African-Americans. Of course, Bramlett also has to win.

Joseph Bramlett
Bramlett seems more comfortable with race issues than Woods sometimes does.

Some people mistakenly view racial pride as dangerous, but it's only harmful when it involves denigrating other people.

African-Americans who applaud Bramlett for embracing his blackness are no different than whites who feel an additional kinship with Peyton Hillis because he looks like them, or Latinos who are proud that Mark Sanchez is emerging in these NFL playoffs.

Tribalism doesn't equal racism. America is indeed a melting pot, but we still need to see ourselves in the soup.

The PGA Tour should be encouraged by Bramlett's willingness to tackle race, because if the Tour ever wants to see an increase in African-American golfers, people of color need to be able to identify with the minority golfers who play on it. Woods' success drew African-American audiences, but his awkward racial deflections can sometimes be a turnoff.

It's pathetic that in the 14 years since Tiger Woods, Bramlett is the only African-American golfer to earn his PGA Tour card. At this rate, we should expect the third African-American to join the Tour sometime in 2025.

"Frankly, it takes time," Bramlett said. "Tiger did have a huge effect. He made a huge impact on changing the demographic of the game. But you can't pick up the game and go straight to the PGA Tour. It takes time to develop and understand how to play the game at the highest level. There are several of us coming up right now who hopefully will continue changing that."

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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