Playing golf with ‘Tiger Hood’ — Andscape
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Playing golf with ‘Tiger Hood’ — Andscape

Aug 16, 2023

A lifelong golfer receives a lesson in the game and life that he never expected

It’s an early afternoon in August and I’m in Harlem standing near the corner of 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, where there are basketball courts full of mostly young African American men playing 3-on-3. Basketball is the city game and these courts bustling with activity are a testament to the prominence of the sport in New York City. But I hadn’t come to this intersection on this overcast day to play streetball.

I’m a golfer and for years I have trudged my way through these streets with my golf bag on my way to prestigious courses in the suburbs. The glorious clubhouses constructed by Wall Street titans were a jarring contrast to the public housing developments built in Harlem for Black Southern migrants during the Great Migration.

Every day these two worlds collided for me as I navigated a career as a golf writer living in a neighborhood where the game was not easily accessible for most residents. One morning in the early 2000s, a bearded and disheveled middle-aged Black man who appeared to be homeless saw me with my bag and asked, to my astonishment, did I have “graphite or steel” shafts in my irons. The biggest fan of famed golfer Tiger Woods was a nurse who I passed in my apartment staircase with my bag as she came home from her overnight shift. This Jamaican woman had never been on a golf course, but she rarely missed a PGA Tour telecast and knew how to follow Woods in contention at the Masters.

I even helped to build an indoor golf learning center in the neighborhood for young Black men. On our walls in the studio was the artwork of the late Charles McGill, who as his alter ego, Arthur Negro, did a performance piece Playing Through along 125th Street, teeing off from watermelons with his golf clubs and dressed in an argyle sweater and plus fours. Arthur Negro was the founder of the Former Black Militant Golf and Country Club.

Now armed with a handful of clubs, I was about to play golf for the first time in Harlem with Tiger Hood, a 59-year-old African American photojournalist whose real name is Patrick Barr. Lately, Barr, a self-styled news junkie and activist, has been obsessed with politics. The Dobbs decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion was not a protected right under the Constitution, draws a special ire from him. His clubs have blue and yellow grips in support of the Ukrainians in their fight against Russia. On his Instagram page, where he has nearly 37,000 followers, he regularly posts videos about his political views. He’s had encounters on the street with everyone from actor Will Smith to blues musician B.B. King.

Terrance Purdy for Andscape

“I want to be able to spread the game of golf and civics to get people to think so that they will stop complaining about the things that they can’t change,” he told me. “I don’t think there is anybody who can spread this game more than me, because I can go to the ’hood. I’m trying to bring the game to the streets and have fun and have an open dialogue.”

Barr met me in front of civil rights activist Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters on 145th Street. He arrived on his aging foldable bike with a trailer full of his photographs, golf clubs, gloves and custom-made milk cartons that he uses like golf balls. He would make his way uptown by the subway from his apartment in Lower Manhattan, where he spends most of his days setting up his golf range on the streets for a passerby to share in his unique version of the game. Barr picks up work cleaning a local Jamaican restaurant. He found his way to this life about 15 years ago after finding a golf club in a trash can. A display of his photographs on Prince Street soon gave way to his own brand of performance art that combines golf with oratory, humor and wicked street smarts. For this self-taught player, the game has become a way to cultivate a dialogue about humanity and to challenge the establishment.

He shot down my suggestion that we set up his golf course in a ball field near the basketball courts. “I need to be in the streets,” he said. The streets of New York are his course and stage: the asphalt, the graffiti, the noise of traffic and conversations, and the wanderers and dreamers captivated by this man with his club and milk carton. Barr is unfamiliar with the game that I cherish with its beautifully manicured fairways and state-of-the art equipment. He felt out of place during a visit to a local PGA Tour event. “That world is not for me,” he said. “But it could be for kids who want progress in the sport.”

Terrance Purdy for Andscape

We’d met in front of the National Action Network headquarters because he wanted to know more about the organization, and as time passed I found some similarities between him and Sharpton. There were two police officers in a parked car at the corner where we decided to set up the driving range. “In a way I’m a one-man protest,” he said. “This cop is going to see me on the street playing and say that I can’t do this here. And I’m going to say, ‘I will leave today but I will be back tomorrow.’ It’s my job to come back tomorrow to let them know that I’m not going to be pushed around. Everybody has the right to play as long as I’m careful and respectful and not hurting anybody.”

Terrance Purdy for Andscape

I brought my own golf clubs and gloves, but Barr insisted that I use his old worn clubs on the cement. He gave me a new leather glove emblazoned with his Tiger Hood logo. For our two-ball, we could not have been dressed more differently. I wore the kind of conversative golf attire that is customary at most country clubs: a collared polo and performance shorts with a belt. Barr wore his custom golf shirt with the name of his club across the back: the Neighborhood Golf Association, which he says is a cross between the PGA and the rap group N.W.A. “People are finding out that I’m that guy with the attitude,” Barr said. The shirt, which was fully open, revealed a small, muscular frame. All of his golf attire is donated by apparel makers in the industry.

Terrance Purdy for Andscape

Terrance Purdy for Andscape

Barr’s golf is as much a city game as basketball, stickball or handball, all games he played as a kid growing up in New York. We lined up a row of his specially designed milk cartons and hit them at a target. He has another game called Balls on the Walls, where he hits a foam ball into a wall and tries to catch it before it hits the ground. “In the Bronx, we would play the next block in football,” he said. “We had our own teams. How nice could it be if kids could form teams to play golf on the streets?”

For me, golf is mostly a mental war with my golf swing and the conditions of the course: the undulations and speed of the greens, the wind, the rules and the pace of play. Barr contends with many of the same issues, but often with the weight of the world on his mind. Much like my Titleist Pro V1 balls, his milk cartons are affected by the wind. He hits fades and draws and some shots thin and fat. While he’s more likely to watch Meet the Press than he is to watch the Masters, he’s become a student of the game.

“When I’m playing in the street and trying to correct my mistakes, it’s self-therapy because I don’t have a coach,” he said. “I have to figure out what I’m doing wrong on my own and to do that I have to get inside my head.”

As Barr and I were hitting balls and discussing current affairs, drivers honked their horns, yelled “Tiger Hood” and took photos of him with their cellphones. “I follow you on social media,” said one woman who stopped to meet Barr with her sister. While he acknowledges that playing golf in the streets can sometimes be dangerous, his work is often not done until he can persuade someone to hit balls.

Terrance Purdy for Andscape

Eric Atherton, a fitness trainer from Harlem, was walking near us when Barr called out to him. “You want some of this?” Barr said. That challenge was enough. Barr’s lesson with the trainer began with showing him how to hold the club, the first lesson for every new golfer. “Let the body flow like a dancer,” Barr told him. “Don’t stop the club, let the club take you.”

After a few swings with Barr’s coaching, Atherton was hitting the cartons 40 yards down the block. “I’ve watched golf on TV, but I’ve never had a chance to play,” Atherton said. “This is really cool.”

For Barr, these exchanges are an invigorating and daily source of sustenance in a troubled world. He’s a long way right now from his dream of taking street golf around America on a bus, but he’s happy with Atherton’s satisfaction at hitting the cartons against a cloudy sky.

“I need to make more trips to the ’hood,” Atherton said. “I’ll be back.”

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, and Andscape, where he writes regularly about golf.