Commentary

Bramlett on similar path as Tiger

Originally Published: February 11, 2009
By Ron Kroichick | Special to ESPN.com

As a golf-consumed child growing up in Northern California, Joseph Bramlett openly admired Tiger Woods.

Joseph Bramlett
Dino Vournas/Getty ImagesJoseph Bramlett drew attention at a young age. When Bramlett was 10, John Kennaday -- who was the Santa Clara golf coach at the time and now leads San Jose State -- offered him a scholarship to wherever he was coaching when he was ready for college.

Bramlett and his father, Marlo, traipsed around Stanford Golf Course when Joseph was 7 or 8 to watch Woods play in a college tournament. Not long thereafter, Bramlett plastered two posters of Woods on his bedroom wall, including one from the 1997 Masters.

But what separates Bramlett from other Woods fans is the road he has traveled and the parallels he shares with the world's top player. Bramlett also comes from a multiracial family and learned the game from a devoted, disciplined African-American father. Bramlett also defied his age, becoming the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Amateur, at age 14 in 2002, and helped his college team win the NCAA championship during his freshman season (something even Woods didn't pull off).

It's hardly coincidence Bramlett landed at Stanford. The school's academic prestige and proximity to his family's Saratoga, Calif., home were appealing, but it didn't hurt that Woods spent two years with the Cardinal before soaring into his otherworldly realm.

"Tiger has meant a lot to Joseph as a role model and pioneer," said John Kennaday, one of Bramlett's instructors during his younger days and now the coach at nearby San Jose State. "It's a good opportunity to follow in your hero's footsteps."

This is not to suggest Bramlett, now 20 and a junior at Stanford, is the next Tiger Woods -- no young golfer deserves that unrealistic burden. Bramlett, coming off a strong fall, begins this college season ranked 14th in the nation by Golfweek and is trying to shake off his second wrist injury in little more than a year.

Still, it's revealing to see how he leaned on Woods' example -- from his stoic intensity to gracefully navigating his way in a sport not always welcoming to African-Americans. Bramlett learned as much watching Woods' expression as his swing.

"I've always looked up to and admired Tiger, not just his ability but also his competitiveness," Bramlett said. "You can see when he's out there he's putting every part of himself into his game."

The connection has come full circle in some ways. Bramlett's coach at Stanford, Conrad Ray, was Woods' college teammate in 1995 and '96. Ray brought the Cardinal to the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational the past two Octobers outside Orlando, and each time Woods had the team to his home for dinner.

There, the young players sat in Woods' living room and peppered him with questions -- nobody more eagerly than Bramlett, who began jotting down queries two weeks in advance about course management, pre-shot routine and putting.

"I'm fortunate I've had the opportunity to get to know Joseph," Woods said. "He's an outstanding player and competitor. I think he has a very bright future both as an individual and a golfer."


At age 3, little Joseph grabbed a plastic golf club and chased the family cat around the house. He soon joined his dad in hitting balls at a nearby junior college, began taking lessons at 7 and learned the realities of the golf world soon thereafter.

Marlo Bramlett is black and his wife, Debbie, is white. As Joseph started to play in junior tournaments, he quickly realized he was "a little different than everybody else out there." He noticed the expressions on people's faces when they saw his parents following him during events.

"There were definitely certain times growing up when I could see people do something to my dad that they didn't do to one of my friends' dads," Bramlett said. "It forces you to be a little stronger … and there's a certain appreciation. I mean, 60 years ago would I be playing golf? I don't think that would have happened, so I appreciate those who came before me and opened the gates."

Marlo Bramlett, who picked up the game at age 21 and eventually lowered his handicap to plus-2, never formally sat Joseph down for a conversation about the history of African-Americans in golf. But as opportunities arose, they talked about Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder and other trailblazers. Joseph played in the Bill Dickey Invitational, held by the National Minority Junior Golf Association, and met other young, promising black players.

Still, he often was the lone African-American at junior tournaments. Golf has struggled to achieve diversity, even since Woods' historic win at Augusta National nearly 12 years ago, so Bramlett learned all about the sometimes uncomfortable road his idol followed.

"There are politics played, and Joseph got to see it at an early age," Marlo Bramlett says. "And I don't think Joseph would have seen the same politics if he wasn't of African-American descent."

Kennaday was impressed with how the Bramlett family handled the difficult situations.

"It's not easy. You see a lot of B.S., but the Bramletts never lowered themselves to any of that stuff. I have a great deal of respect for them."

Joseph Bramlett downplays any tension and suggests, if anything, the paucity of blacks in the game motivates him to work harder. He also savors the relative diversity at Stanford, where that 2007 title team also included two players of Japanese heritage and one of Korean descent.

Today, even with Bramlett as one of the few African-Americans in a major-college program, most people Bramlett meets are surprised he plays golf because of his size (6-foot-3) more than his ethnicity. He embraces the prospect of finding success as a pro and possibly paving the way for more minorities. And he finds added inspiration in President Barack Obama.

"His inauguration speech was probably the coolest thing I've ever seen," said Bramlett, who admittedly had no interest in politics when he arrived at Stanford. "He's just an inspiration -- listening to him, how he carries himself. It gives me the chills watching him."


Kennaday offered Bramlett a full scholarship when he was 10. No, really -- Kennaday was Santa Clara's coach then and assured Marlo Bramlett his son was welcome wherever Kennaday was coaching.

"You could kinda tell, even at 10," he said.

Bramlett justified the faith and sailed beyond Kennaday's grasp, qualifying for the U.S. Amateur four times (though he hasn't advanced beyond the round of 32), reaching the finals of the California state amateur in 2006 and earning second-team All-America honors as a freshman. Along the way, he impressed teammates with his demeanor as much as his skills.

"He's mature beyond his years," former Cardinal star Rob Grube said of Bramlett. Grube finished third overall in the NCAAs during Stanford's 2007 championship season and played two seasons with Bramlett.

Now Bramlett needs to find his way back on to the course. He sprained his left wrist in December when the pedals on his bike locked, sending him flying over the handlebars. Bramlett missed Stanford's season-opening tournament last week in Hawaii but has resumed putting and hopes to soon start taking full swings.

Ray sees a bright future for Bramlett, given his length and accuracy off the tee, short game and passion for golf.

"If he keeps on the track he's going, I don't see why Joe can't be a successful tour pro," Ray said.

So far, he has followed a promising path.

Ron Kroichick is a contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage. He also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and can be contacted at r.kroichick@comcast.net.