Kobe Narcisse plays high school football mostly because his friends are on the team, but he would rather crush drives than deliver crushing hits.
He was introduced to golf at age 5 by his father, Robert, who took up the sport as an adult after Tiger Woods’s victory at the Masters in 1997. And this spring, Kobe Narcisse, who is African-American, recruited five other students, most of them baseball players, to form a golf team at his public high school outside New Orleans.
But by the time the scholastic regional championships started, Narcisse, 14, a freshman, was the only golfer left.
Most of his teammates, he said, “decided they weren’t ready to play.”
There were supposed to be scores of Kobe Narcisses by now, at every level of golf — minority children who coursed into the sport after Woods burst the dam with his dominant play as a junior and with his peerless career as a pro — or at least a lot more than there are. Woods, who is Thai and African-American, brought mock turtlenecks, celebratory uppercuts and the chiseled physique to golf, changing plenty about how the game looks. But predictions that his superstardom would diversify the sport have not come true.
A lack of easy access to golf courses and the high costs associated with competing have proved to be problems that even the rise of a once-in-a-century star like Woods, or the everyday benevolence of teaching professionals, cannot solve.
Woods said on Tuesday that golf’s time investment limited its appeal to today’s children, regardless of background. “There's so many different things that kids can get into and go toward that honestly, playing five hours, five and a half hours, of a sport just doesn't sound too appealing,” said Woods, who could have been talking about his daughter and son, both soccer players.
Twenty-two years after Woods’s 12-stroke victory at Augusta National, there are only three players of African-American descent out of a total of 250 active players on the PGA Tour (and four with status on the L.P.G.A. Tour or its minor league circuit, including Woods’s niece, Cheyenne Woods).
According to statistics provided by the N.C.A.A., 6 percent of all N.C.A.A. golfers were black, Latino or Native American. Asians are the only minority group to have seen a significant increase in participation numbers; they represented 5.9 percent of all players in 2018, compared with 3.1 percent in 2008.
The pipeline is sputtering even as some 2.6 million people tried golf for the first time in 2018, the fourth consecutive year that the number of beginners increased, according to the National Golf Foundation.
Narcisse, who recently played in a pro-am with Jason Day, the 2015 P.G.A. champion, is a product of the First Tee, a program aimed at underserved children, especially girls and minorities. There are others like it, including U.S. Kids Golf and Youth on Course, and they are having an impact: 35 percent of the newcomers last year were women, 26 percent were nonwhite, and 70 percent were 34 or younger. Yet, while golf has made progress in introducing the game to new players, keeping them has been a challenge.
“It’s a hard sport,” Narcisse said.
Woods was not a country-club kid. He learned on a par-3 public course in Long Beach, Calif., and his father, Earl, said he took out a second mortgage to support his prodigy’s development.
It was a sound investment. When Woods turned professional he signed a $40 million deal with Nike, whose chairman, Phil Knight, said, “What Michael Jordan did for basketball, Tiger absolutely can do for golf.” Nike became Woods’s longest-lasting sponsor.
Woods’s success caused more money to flow into the sport, sparking an arms race that has in some ways made it more difficult for children from modest means to develop as golfers, especially if they are not from the suburbs, where public courses are more plentiful.
The First Tee, a partnership of the PGA and L.P.G.A. Tours, the United States Golf Association, Augusta National Golf Club and the P.G.A. of America, the host organization of this week’s P.G.A. Championship at Long Island’s Bethpage State Park, offers free instruction and free access or deeply discounted rates at affiliated courses. But the very people these programs are meant to serve often face major hurdles to pursuing the sport consistently.
Consider the First Tee chapter in Kansas City, Mo., which is seven miles as the crow flies, but more than an hour away as the public buses drive, from the impoverished east side where Chris Harris, 50, grew up. A natural athlete, Harris gravitated to basketball, football and baseball, but never played golf. “Because I had no access to it,” said Harris, who has moved earth to change that landscape.
In the past two decades, Harris has bought distressed properties in his old neighborhood. With help from donations and free time from his job finding housing for the homeless, he has developed the land into a sports complex that includes a pitch-and-putt course. The facility will become the local First Tee headquarters.
But exposing children to the game is just the headwaters in the money stream of development. There are tournament fees and travel costs for a seemingly endless schedule. And a set of clubs, even at discount, costs considerably more than a basketball or a tennis racket.
Cameron Champ, 23, a PGA Tour event winner of African-American descent, was able to parlay his Youth on Course participation into a tour membership, but it wasn't easy. He said he didn’t play his first American Junior Golf Association event until he was 15 because his parents, who operate a screen-printing business in Sacramento, couldn’t afford it. His father, Jeff, played baseball at San Diego State and in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization. He said they considered a move to the suburbs but opted to stay in their less pricey neighborhood and put the difference toward golf expenses, which Jeff said were often $30,000 annually.
When Woods started traveling for tournaments, his father booked their hotel for the day the event started to eliminate an extra night’s lodging. Earl Woods loosened the purse strings after his son said he felt at a disadvantage because he could not see the course ahead of his first round.
Alexis Vakasiuola, 11, and her sister, Alyzzah, 17, know that feeling. Alexis took her first flight in April, and only then because her travel was covered by event organizers, after she qualified for the finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt contest at Augusta National. The Vakasiuolas, who are of Tongan descent, are used to driving to tournaments with their father, Danny. Until recently, the family vehicle was a 1992 Toyota 4Runner that doubled as their sleeping quarters.
“We’d go to a gas station, park and sleep and hit a McDonald’s in the morning and eat breakfast and wash in the restroom,” the father said.
They now are able to stay in budget hotels because Steve Dallas, who owns two Phoenix-area public courses, subsidizes their travel costs through donations for scholarships that are then distributed by the Junior Golf Association of Arizona. Dallas, who was the first instructor to the Hall of Famer Fred Couples, also lets them practice and play free at his courses, Las Colinas and Apache Creek, and he is their nearest thing to a swing coach.
The generosity of people like the course builder, Harris, and the course owner, Dallas, are the caulking that keeps the game from leaking more participants. But some holes can’t be filled.
“There are girls I play with who will say they just switched to another swing coach or they just got a new putting coach, and they think it’s working out,” Alyzzah said, adding: “It’s a bit hard. You start to think maybe I need that, too.”
Like Woods at 14, the Vakasiuolas don’t have a strength coach. Woods’s first exercise program cost $2.50 — the price of the January 1990 issue of Golf Digest, which included the article “How to Get Your Golf Muscles in Shape This Winter.” His obsession with working out raised the bar for athleticism in the sport — and the cost of success.
This is the world that Isaac and Mary Pat Rodriguez are looking at when they see what might be coming for their son Marshall, a first grader who became obsessed with golf last year. On the same Sunday that Woods won his 15th major championship, Marshall, 6, broke 40 for nine holes for the first time on a course that featured age-appropriate yardages — a setup equivalent to what Woods's first coach employed and described as “Tiger par.”
Isaac Rodriguez searched for nearby golf courses and stumbled upon Tenison Park, east of downtown Dallas and a few miles from their home. Jess Robinson, a teaching pro, was working on the range the first day Marshall showed up and has been at his side since. Like Woods’s first instructor, Rudy Duran, Robinson emphasizes the joy of playing, not the science of the swing.
The Rodriguezes, who have two other children, are calculating the costs of developing Marshall’s game. They have juggled schedules to accommodate tournaments and taken him to clinics at country clubs where a membership would be out of reach. They are grateful to have found in Robinson an instructor willing to spend many more hours working with their son than they could comfortably afford.
While his parents try not to worry about where their son’s passion for golf might lead them, Marshall’s sights are firmly on the future.
He can’t wait until school lets out for summer. “Then I can play golf all the time,” he said.