Joseph Bramlett reflects on being a Black golfer on the PGA Tour

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Joseph Bramlett hits out of the bunker on the sixth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship on Friday, June 14, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (David J. Phillip/AP)

At 8:46 a.m. during the first events back after a three-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both the PGA Tour and the Korn Ferry Tour pressed the pause button again — but this time for a moment of silence.

With racial unrest and protests sweeping across the U.S. in early June, the tours decided to pay tribute to George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer on a street in downtown Minneapolis.

Joseph Bramlett, one of only four Black golfers with status on the PGA Tour, thought about Floyd and his family during that moment of silence. Then, he says, he went down the line.

Breonna Taylor: a 26-year-old Black medical technician, shot and killed by white police officers.

Ahmaud Arbery: a 25-year-old Black man, killed by two white men while jogging.

“The list can keep going for days,” says Bramlett. “I started reflecting on that and then the emotions I’ve felt the last few weeks for the Black Lives Matter movement and people protesting and taking a stand and making their voices heard. I reflected around that circle and my own heritage and my connection to it.”

Bramlett, who made his PGA debut in 2010, has a Black father and a white mother. Tiger Woods, Harold Varner III and Cameron Champ are the only other full-time Tour members who are Black.

Both Woods and Varner released statements in the wake of Floyd’s death, with Varner writing a particularly powerful post on social media. Taking to social media isn’t really Bramlett’s style, though, so instead he walked to the podium after his opening round of the Korn Ferry Tour Challenge at TPC Sawgrass and spoke from the heart. About himself, about the world, about race, about golf — and what it’s like to be Black on the PGA Tour.

“It was something I was thinking a lot about and something I was thinking about for a long time,” he told Sportsnet in a recent phone interview. “These are social issues I care a lot about and I’ve always cared about. It’s not like I changed the world, but I wanted to provide my feedback.”

Growing up in California, Bramlett fell in love with golf at a very young age. In kindergarten, he knew he wanted to be on the PGA Tour. As he got older, he and his father would watch Woods play in events when he was at Stanford University.

“I saw some of myself in this guy. He looked like my family,” says Bramlett. “I resonated with this guy.”

Bramlett ended up going to Stanford himself, following in Woods’ footsteps. And since making the Tour, he’s twice been bestowed the Charlie Sifford Memorial exemption into the Genesis Invitational (hosted by Woods), in 2011 and this year. Sifford, who Bramlett calls a “true trailblazer,” was the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour and was a two-time winner.

“He’s paved a path that’s made it a whole lot easier for players like Tiger, Harold, myself, Cameron Champ to get to where we are in this game. I think that receiving an honour in his name and the meaning behind it is amazing,” says Bramlett. “I’ve been very honoured to have that and I’ve tried to represent that award the best I can.”

But even with Sifford’s long-ago debut and Woods’ massive impact, why are there only four Black golfers on the biggest stage in the sport? Did Bramlett deal with acts of racism as he tried to play with the best of the best?

“It’s a hard thing to define,” Bramlett admits. “I’ve had plenty of run-ins over the years that would cause you to raise an eyebrow, but nothing that I would say that is quite as explicit and deliberate as what a lot of people go through.”

Bramlett says any racially charged moments in his life were more implicit than explicit.

“When you look at me, I’m mixed. I’m very light. At first glance, I don’t get profiled the same way,” he says. “(But) I also have a lot of friends, family and people who have not had that same ability and have not been able to get by that way.”

Bramlett says most people can agree golf has historically lagged on social issues. The Masters Tournament, as one example, didn’t allow Black competitors before 1975. The tournament’s home course, Augusta National, didn’t allow Black members until 1990.

But the PGA Tour has done its part over the last few weeks, according to Bramlett, to keep important conversations about race going. A handful of its white players have commented on racial injustices in the U.S. either via social media or in interview settings.

#BlackOutTuesday To the all lives matter comments…yes all lives do matter but all lives can’t matter until black lives matter too…we are ONE!

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Bramlett has also seen Tour commissioner Jay Monahan step up and renew his commitment to diversifying the game — insisting that he and his colleagues be “part of the solution.” The two spoke in person at that first Korn Ferry Tour event at TPC Sawgrass.

Bramlett went on to finish T2 that week, nearly winning the tournament in what would have certainly been one of the more powerful sports stories of the year.

“The moment of silence for the Tour … was a really big deal, honestly. I was moved and a little bit surprised, even, that the Tour was taking that strong of a stance and was that invested,” says Bramlett. “I was happy and excited about that because it’s one thing to make a donation or support what’s going on, but it’s another thing to support the conversation and take it to another level.

“They took a minute to interrupt tournament play for four straight days, and that’s real.”

Bramlett says he’s been exploring the idea of starting a foundation that reflects some of the important causes his eyes have been opened to more recently. And in the meantime, he’ll continue to play his game and live his life while reflecting on and honouring those who no longer have that opportunity.

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