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Tiger Woods’ Masters return a reminder of the Black golf fandom he ignited

For 25 years, Woods’ play at Augusta National and beyond has been the ‘field leveler’ in golf’s traditionally uneven playing field for Black people

For much of Tiger Woods’ historic run from 1996 to 2013, when he won 79 times — including 14 majors — two Black men were a regular presence in his gallery: Paul Shannon, a retired FBI agent, and Johnnie Williams, a retired postal worker.

Shannon had talked Williams into retiring so that they could follow Woods around the tour. Crisscrossing the country from California to Georgia, the pair put more than 260,000 miles on Shannon’s Lincoln Town Car.

Both well over 6 feet tall and always dressed immaculately in well-starched golf apparel, they were emblematic of the widespread love and support that Woods received from African Americans, many of whom had only come to the game because of his phenomenal success.

Woods knew Shannon and Williams because they volunteered at his youth clinics. On the golf course, they were his biggest cheerleaders. One needed only to watch the moods and expressions of these men to know how well Woods was playing.

“Whenever Tiger hit a good shot,” Shannon told Andscape, “I would give him a thumbs-up. Johnnie and I always tried to be there for him. We almost felt like it was our duty.”

The PGA Tour touts its fans as the “most valuable audience in sport.” According to the tour, its fans “earn more, spend more and give more than other major sports.” Its fans are predominantly white and affluent, and the main faces in galleries at tournaments. Yet Williams, who died in 2020, and Shannon represent a segment of golf fandom that is Black and unabashedly pro-Tiger.

Shannon was glued to his television Tuesday morning as Woods said he intended to play in the Masters for the first time since his single-car rollover crash in February 2021, where he sustained major leg injuries that threatened to end his playing career.

When Woods comes back to Augusta for the Masters, it’s a reminder of how he ignited a Tiger fandom in the Black community during his historic win here at the 1997 Masters.

As a young golf reporter in the early 2000s for Sports Illustrated, I remember how Shannon and Williams moved through the Woods galleries like two long graceful Black figures from an Ernie Barnes painting. They appeared as if they were leading a charge on a battlefield — maneuvering their way across the course to get the best view of their favorite player.

“Tiger was a hero to old-school Black golfers like Paul and Johnnie,” said Pete McDaniel, a pioneering Black golf writer and the co-author with Woods’ father, Earl, of Training a Tiger: A Father’s Guide to Raising a Winner in Both Golf and Life. “They lived and died with Tiger’s every shot because for men of their generation, who had experienced the unlevel playing field in every arena in this country, he was their field leveler in golf.”

When McDaniel joined Golf World magazine in the early 1990s, there was a smattering of African Americans at golf tournaments. At Woods’ first Masters when he was an amateur, there was curiosity about this young phenom who brought more Black fans to this major championship, which always had an allure in the Black community because of the presence of the Black caddies and staff at the club.

In 1975, Lee Elder had a strong Black following of patrons at Augusta when he became the first Black golfer to play in the tournament, but nothing like what would come when Woods won in 1997.

“People of color began to dominate Tiger’s galleries,” McDaniel said of this period. “His galleries became a lot younger with the golf enthusiasts who wanted to be like Tiger.”

Woods was also the source of another major shift in golf fandom, according to McDaniel.

“Even those white people who had been steeped in segregation and racism all of sudden became big fans,” he said. “They didn’t see him as being Black. They saw him as colorless, which was a phenomena in its own right.”

In Black golf fandom, Woods was the source of the energy that drove Shannon and Williams to walk all those miles on bad knees across hilly golf courses. At 84, Shannon no longer follows Woods around the country in his Lincoln Town Car. Now he mostly follows the game through televised tournament coverage.

This week he will be giving the thumbs-up to Woods as he attempts to navigate Augusta National’s hilly terrain with some uncertain legs. As always, Woods will attract the biggest crowds, and these patrons, as Augusta calls them, will be of all races. Shannon will be thinking of all those times with Johnnie when Woods was at his very best, and when being a fan meant racial pride and advancement.

Farrell Evans has written about the intersection of race and sports for many publications including Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, GQ, The Oxford American, Bleacher Report, ESPN.com and Andscape, where he writes regularly about golf.