William Ritchie swung the driver with all the power his six-foot frame could muster, and the ball sailed more than 200 yards, landing within eagle distance of the Lake Arbor Golf Club's ninth hole. He allowed himself the tiniest grin of satisfaction, then stepped aside for the next player.
"That's that police swing," former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. said of his friend and former colleague.
"That's the swing of an angry man," said Jeff Ransom, who has spent the summer trying to teach children how to hit the ball just that way as a golf camp instructor.
"Let me see what I can do," said Rodney Monroe, before sending his ball into the trees.
"That killed about two birds," Fulwood teased. "I'm pretty sure that's a federal violation."
A sunny afternoon on the links in Prince George's County and all the conventions are in place--golf shirts and crisply starched khaki shorts, $250 drivers and graphite putters, gentlemen's manners and country club etiquette.
But with this group there was something extra--the brother thing. A little trash talk with the polite banter. A little competition mixed with the feeling of goodwill when somebody popped a great shot.
From Paint Branch to Accokeek, golf is huge in Prince George's County, driven largely by an affluent black middle class with enough disposable income to afford the costly hobby and jobs that benefit from its connections. Local interest in golf among African Americans mirrors a national trend that has seen golf participation among blacks increase by almost 150 percent in the last 15 years.
The National Golf Foundation counted 882,000 African American golfers last year, up 145 percent from 360,000 the organization identified in 1986. The demographics of black golfers reflect those of their white counterparts--they are typically older than 40 with household incomes of more than $65,000, foundation spokeswoman Judy Thompson said.
Black participation in golf has grown fastest in major cities and jurisdictions with high percentages of affluent blacks, such as Washington, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles, experts say. And though many think blacks are new to the game, some older golfers say blacks have been in love with it for decades.
"There were a number of black golfers in the '30s, '40s and '50s," said Joe Louis Barrow Jr., 53, senior vice president of the World Golf Foundation and son of famed boxer Joe Louis. "But they didn't have access to the Professional Golf Association or its tournaments because the PGA had a non-Caucasian rule until the 1960s."
Sam McIlwin, who has been golfing since his father introduced him to the sport 45 years ago and teaches at the Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington, said blacks formed their own organizations and held their own tournaments, but that those competitions and champions were never recognized by the PGA.
"We've got some of the greatest golfers ever to come out in this country who have played for much longer than I played," he said. "Lee Elder is credited with being the black golfer who [broke the color barrier] because he was the first to play in the Masters, but there were other great golfers before him."
Locally, Prince George's County is especially popular among African American golfers because it offers several well-kept public and semi-private courses and the chance to play among other minorities.
"I've played at many golf courses, and at many of them I look up and I'm the only one or one of a very few," said Fulwood, of Southeast Washington, who plays frequently at Lake Arbor. "A lot of people don't care for that. They would rather not be the only African American out there."
Managers at most of the county's public and private golf courses and clubs report that their memberships are now at least 50 percent black, despite golf's tradition as a rich white man's game that did not welcome minorities or women. Membership at private clubs is up significantly among blacks who choose to make expensive monthly dues payments in order to tee off without long waits.
Jim Frank, editor of Golf magazine, said more minorities and women have embraced golf as the barriers--such as discrimination and cost--that traditionally kept them away from the sport have come down.
Courses typically are not located in neighborhoods with high percentages of minorities. Blacks felt isolated from the neighborhoods where golf was played and therefore from the sport. But Frank said golf has become more accessible to African Americans as more and more move to affluent suburbs and as more public courses are constructed in urban and suburban areas.
The golf community also has taken steps to draw minorities in, such as sponsoring golf clinics for children and women and sponsoring charity events for black causes.
For a long time, golf was not attractive to some blacks because it was seen as a nerdy sport embraced only by the elderly and those who lacked skill on the basketball court or football field.
"Golf was definitely not considered a manly game when I was growing up," said Ritchie, 53, of Fort Washington, who has been playing since his father introduced him to the sport 14 years ago. "We saw our sports figures, our role models, in baseball, football and basketball, and those sports were readily available to us. . . . We knew very little about golf."
Golf's image has changed immensely in the last four years as Tiger Woods's fame has grown to epidemic proportions. Woods--whose ancestry is black, white, Indian and Asian--is credited with the increase in participation among junior players and blacks, but statistics show both groups were growing steadily before he turned professional in 1995.
Golf has become so intertwined with the black middle class that many churches are holding golf tournaments and charitable organizations are using tournaments as fundraisers. Black golf organizations, such as Phoenix's Nomad Golf Club, have sprung up from California to New York.
"I have made wonderful friends from among people I have met playing golf," said Monroe, a Prince George's County resident, an assistant police chief in the District and a member of the Marlboro Country Club. "There is a kind of camaraderie among golfers that's unlike any other sport when you are playing friends or people you don't even know."
Fulwood said his times on the golf course are some of his most memorable: "You are outside and the temperature is always 10 to 12 degrees cooler because of the trees. It's peaceful and quiet. You turn your pager and your cell phone off and you can just get out there and forget the world."
Ransom, 34, of Bowie, whose 11-year-old son, Kendell Richardson, started playing seriously two years ago, said golf is gaining popularity among African American families because parents and children can do it together and the sport imparts positive values such as politeness, truthfulness and tenacity.
"Golf is a game you never master; you just keep playing and keep trying to improve your performance," said Ransom, who teaches physical education and coaches lacrosse at Sidwell Friends School in the District. "That's why golfers like to play different courses: You are always searching for a new challenge."
But time constraints make it difficult for many golfers to spend as much time on the links as they would like. Those with spouses and significant others who don't play complain that their loved ones don't always understand their obsession.
Monroe and his wife, Marvette, negotiate golf times when they get together to coordinate their busy schedules for the week. They factor in time for their children's activities, after-hours work commitments, get-togethers with friends and family and church--and Rodney's four weekly trips to the golf course.
"My wife is getting more used to it," said Monroe, whose son Brandon, 13, is also a golfer. "I always tell my wife that it's better than having an affair. The only passion I have besides my family and my job is golf."