Tiger lesson inspired Worthington all the way to the PGA

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- Wyatt Worthington II posted a 6-over 76 in the morning's first group at the PGA Championship on Thursday. On a day when all of the world's top players were vying for leaderboard position at the year's final major, it was a wholly unremarkable achievement, far from the best score, though certainly not the worst, either.

Unremarkable, that is, except for one important designation.

He set some tournament history. No, scratch that. He matched some tournament history, a quarter century in the making.

Worthington joined Tom Woodard as just the second African-American club professional to compete in this tournament.

Let that sink in for a moment. This is the 98th edition of this event. Twenty club pros get into the field, though that number has varied over the years. And Worthington is just the second African-American.

He met Woodard, who competed at Crooked Stick in 1991, earlier this week. He'd been told to expect "a great spirit and great individual." He wasn't disappointed.

"He told me a bit of his war stories," Worthington, 29, said with a smile. "I feel like we're going to be lifelong friends."

It was another meeting, however, that first inspired Worthington to seriously pursue golf. Fifteen years ago Friday, as part of a joint effort between the First Tee of Columbus and the Tiger Woods Foundation, he was offered a chance to receive a lesson from Woods himself.

He was 14 then and jumped at the chance to meet a man who wasn't just a six-time major champion at the time, but -- ironically enough -- the reigning PGA champion.

"I instantly said yes," he recalled. "As soon as I introduced myself, it seemed like the whole world stopped. Everything just came in slow motion. I just stayed in the moment and enjoyed it so much."

It stuck with Worthington, too. He was impressed that much of the information Woods gave him mirrored that of Gerry Hammond, his instructor and mentor both then and now.

"I caught the bug. As soon as I got the first one up in the air, I was like, this is what I want to do. After watching Tiger, it just solidified that this is the passion I wanted to pursue."

Worthington is now a teaching instructor at The Golf Depot at Central Park in Gahanna, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. He works with anyone who wants to improve their game, but smiles even brighter when he speaks of conducting children's clinics, just like the one that first inspired him 15 years ago.

When asked about his opening-round performance, he sounded much like any other competitor disappointed he didn't play better. He got into some trouble off the tee; he needs to work on his proximity to the hole with iron shots; he was pleased with the two birdies, one of which was nearly an eagle.

Asked afterward if he felt more pressure being the second African-American club pro to play in this tournament, he paused for a few seconds before offering a response.

"When I'm over that golf ball, it doesn't know the color of my skin," he said. "I'm very proud to be the second African-American, [but] when I'm on the course, I'm really focused on my golf game, not the pigment of my skin."

It was a perfect answer. The only answer.

Even though he knows his skin color bears no relevance on his final score, that doesn't mean Worthington doesn't appreciate the significance of his qualification into this tournament.

"Do I think we need more diversity in golf? I think so," he said, "just to get more faces involved, to have kids aware that there's more than just -- and I hate to give a cliché -- baseball, basketball and football."

That's what he learned 15 years ago.

Since then, he's seen Woods a few times, though he hasn't spoken with him. He knows that Woods wouldn't remember one kid from the thousands who attended clinics he's given over the years, but he'd still like to offer a message.

"I'd thank him and just tell him how much he affected my life," Worthington said. "Which I'm pretty sure he's done around the world."

As for Woods, whose withdrawal last week from this tournament allowed another African-American player, PGA Tour regular Harold Varner III, to get into the field, he might not remember Worthington specifically, but knows the story of how he inspired him.

"That's a great accomplishment by Wyatt to qualify for the PGA Championship," Woods said. "It shows what hard work, commitment and determination can do. The focus of the Tiger Woods Foundation has changed from golf to education and college access for underserved kids, and it's rewarding that our event 15 years ago helped encourage Wyatt to succeed."

Worthington isn't Tiger Woods. Never will be, although neither will anyone else.

But just as he was inspired years ago by a professional golfer who helped grow his passion for the game, Worthington is hoping that his lessons and clinics and even his performance this week will help inspire other kids to embark on similar journeys.