WINTER GARDEN, Fla. -- The ink was barely dry on his scorecard when he made the phone call home.
Joseph Bramlett had a short, but poignant, conversation with his father.
"I don't think I've ever heard my dad cry before," Bramlett said.
|Joseph Bramlett shakes off a rough start in the final round to rally into the top 25, securing his PGA Tour card for 2011. (AP)|
But there's a social context to the latter accomplishment that means at least as much in the larger scheme of things, given the incomprehensible drought for a certain segment of American society as it relates to golf.
When Bramlett birdied five holes in the middle of his round on Monday, moving inside the number required to cement his rookie status on tour in 2011, he became the first player of African-American descent to play his way through Q-school in 25 long, lean, incomprehensible years.
He will join another Stanford grad of mixed ethnicity next year in the big leagues, which was pretty apropos given the celebration Bramlett unveiled when he made a dicey 6-footer for par on his 108th and final hole at Orange County National. Bramlett let out a yelp and unleashed a huge uppercut fist pump when the putt rolled in to secure his card. Where have we seen that move from a Stanford product before?
"I don't know," Bramlett said. "But I've heard he's pretty good."
So is Bramlett's story. Not to mention long overdue and entirely welcome.
The last African-American player to earn a card at Q-school was Adrian Stills in 1985. While inroads have been made in impressive numbers by other ethnicities and nationalities -- for instance, Alex Rocha on Monday became the first Brazilian to earn his card -- the wave of African-Americans we thought Tiger Woods would precipitate hasn't remotely materialized. In fact, other than Woods, the lone black player this year on one of the major U.S. tours was Madalitso Muthiya on the Nationwide, and he's from Zambia.
Bramlett has been conducting interviews all week on the social implications of what he faced this week and delivered the goods in special fashion. He said he's more than ready to carry the banner formerly championed by guys like Charlie Sifford, Jim Thorpe and Calvin Peete.
|PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament|
"It's an honor, it truly is an honor," Bramlett said. "Like I've said before, it's been a long time. I'm just thrilled to see it start to change."
Will it be an earth-shaking development? He's from the right locale. Bramlett grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where his dad is a member of San Jose Country Club. Dad threw a club in the crib at a young age and Joseph was swinging it before he even realized what it was.
As Joe grew older, he began to mirror the swing of his dad, Marlo, which sounds a little Tigeresque, too, to say the least.
Marlo Bramlett's cell phone all but blew up on Monday after his son cracked the big leagues as a ceaseless stream of text messages, e-mails and calls from well-wishers flowed. Swing coach Butch Harmon called to express his congratulations.
The elder Bramlett, who is black, let out a deep breath as he tried to put the cultural accomplishment in context and ended up borrowing from the script offered by his son, who is a tremendously composed kid.
"Joseph said it best when he said it's been too long," Marlo Bramlett said. "We've come so far in a lot of ways.
"There are some men coming up that are exceptional players that will make it. But hopefully we look at it one day we look at this deal as 156 golfers, and not 156 golfers and one African-American and three of Asian descent, just 156 players.
"I hope we get there, I really do."
The fact that Bramlett climbed a steep mountain wasn't missed by Woods, who for his entire career has been the lone player of African-American heritage on the tour. Within moments of Bramlett's par-saving putt on the last hole, Woods sent out two messages on his Twitter page.
Wrote Woods: "Amazing feat considering he sat out a whole year with wrist injury. Can't wait to play with him next season."
I showed the Twitter posts to Bramlett on my laptop and he beamed broadly, as you might expect.
"So he was watching?" Bramlett said. "That's kind of a cool shout-out."
Bramlett was a member of Stanford's NCAA national championship team in 2007, then injured his right wrist working out. Worse, he crashed his bike on the way to class a few months later, reinjuring the same wrist. As a senior this year, however, he played well enough to claw his way into the U.S. Open via the difficult sectional qualifying route and played a practice round with Woods at Pebble Beach the day after he graduated from Stanford.
A total of 252 holes of Q-school angst later, here he is in the majors -- though it was surely touch and go for a while. Bramlett started the sixth and final round two strokes outside the projected number needed to secure his card. Then he bogeyed the second and third holes to fall back to 5 under overall. Somewhere, he needed to pick up at least five strokes coming in.
"To be honest, I got off to a terrible start," said Joseph, who shot a 4-under 68. "Then it just kind of clicked."
Like tumblers in a safe combination, it all fell into place. He reeled off five straight birdies starting at the eighth to move into the mix. Then he made a 25-footer for birdie on the 17th to move to 11 under, which ended up being two strokes inside the number at T16.
His caddie, Don Allio, an assistant pro at the Bramlett's home club, caddied for him and didn't seem the least bit surprised that the 6-foot-4, 195-pound beanpole was able to scratch his way back on a day that began with the thermometer at 40 degrees.
"I kept feeling like I was hot, and I just wanted to keep riding it," Bramlett said. "This isn't the time to take your foot off the gas pedal. I was just trying to give it everything I had."
Besides, why would the frigid weather bother Bramlett when he apparently has ice water in his veins? "He's amazing, and he has been like that since he was a kid," said Allio, 39, who has known the family for about 15 years. "He's so clutch that you almost expect it to go in."
For the game, his ascension is a massive relief in many ways. If Woods had a dollar for every time he has been asked about the absence of black players in the professional game despite the existence of many newer programs such as the First Tee, he could buy a second mansion in Jupiter with cold cash. It has become an awkward subject for players of all colors and creeds.
Woods did his part and opened the game to an entirely new audience. He blazed a trail, did clinics, tried to raise interest among under-represented groups of youngsters. But even 14 years after he turned pro, that hasn't translated to date into bigger numbers at the higher levels.
Golf is a brutal meritocracy, where shortcuts are hard to come by for all players regardless of their socioeconomic status, but that doesn't mean it can't be coldly exclusionary to some. First and foremost, it's prohibitively expensive to play in an era of $400 drivers and the seemingly compulsory need for swing coaches for prospects at young ages. Teens travel the country playing in top events. Anybody trying to climb the ladder on hardscrabble muni courses is at a distinct disadvantage developmentally.
A junior golfer has to shell out a wallet-full of his dad's hard-earned jack for clubs, range balls, a glove and green fees -- and that's if he can get a ride to the course, where it takes five hours to walk 18 holes. Meanwhile a kid with a basketball can play for hours in his driveway by himself, for free.
OK, end of social sermon.
Maybe Bramlett's rise to the majors will inspire a few more kids to take up a game they might otherwise have ignored for whatever reason. It certainly meant plenty to Marlo Bramlett, from the cultural context.
"It means a whole lot, it really does -- he got me started when I was a little baby," Joseph said. "Not only for my old man, but for a lot of people who have been there for me over the years. I think it's going to mean a whole lot."
For the sake of the game's diversity, I hope the kid's right. He has a degree from Stanford, so I am not about to argue with him.
Being a dad myself, I asked Marlo what made him most proud, that he had a Stanford grad or a PGA Tour member as a son. He didn't hesitate with his answer.
His genial son seems well-positioned and fortified to handle the spotlight that his accomplishment will surely generate. Twenty-five years is a long, long drought.
"People say that it is cliché but it really isn't -- the first thing that comes across from people when they talk to me about Joseph is what a good young man he is," Marlo said.
"It doesn't matter what happens on the golf course and it doesn't matter where his career takes him. It's about the quality of the individual."
If Bramlett delivers quality, and somehow makes up for a sobering lack of a certain social quantity, then the whole game will be the better for it.