Race and Golf: Let the Discussion Begin

Golfweek editor Dave Seanor lost his job last week over the image of a noose on the controversial cover of the magazine promoting the cover stories about Kelly Tilghman's lynch comment during the Mercedes-Benz Championship. In trying to defend an offense that was clearly worse than the original gaffe because of its premeditation, Seanor said that he made the call in an attempt to stir up intelligent discussion in the fallout of the comment.

While that was probably only part true — the other, larger part was to sell magazine subscriptions — I would like to take Dave Seanor up on his challenge. Since the Tilghman situation occurred, there has been very little in the way of intelligent discussion about race and golf.

White golf columnists have penned in the defense of Tilghman, claiming that she had no latent racist intent and that people should lay off of her. Some African-American columnists — outside of golf — have railed against her and called for her to lose her job. Many have clarified what exactly lynching means, and it does not imply a noose, per se.

Still, outside of defining why African-Americans are enflamed by Kelly Tilghman's slip of the tongue, an intelligent discussion is yet to be had about race and golf. There are so many questions to ask. One may wonder what participation in golf looks like related to African-Americans. Another could ponder why the game still has the stereotype of fatter, richer white men as the main group that play. Those are all questions surrounding the topic of perception and reality in the game of golf. Ultimately, for a sport that has always had a problem of inclusion, has golf made any kind of progress in attracting African-Americans to take up the game and eliminate attitudes of discrimination that have haunted the game for its entire existence?

The question is a two-parter and should be answered as such. Unfortunately, the golf industry does not have a lot of data that points to minority participation in the game. The last significant study conducted about minority participation was done by the National Golf Foundation in 2003. In their report, "Minority Golf Participation in the United States," NGF identifies that minority golfers make up about 15% of all golfers. Of the estimated 37 million golfers in the United States at that time, approximately 5.5 million of them were minorities. To be more specific for our conversation, 2.33 million African-Americans play golf. That is around 7 percent of all golfers.

It should be noted here that the study found that with an increase in income comes a more uniform participation rate among the races. Between 25% and 30% of all people that make more than $150,000 per year play golf. Before any conclusion about race is drawn, then, it must be remembered that a huge factor in determining participation in golf is wealth and ability to afford to play.

Still, the overwhelming majority of people playing the game, regardless of income, are Caucasian. That should give us pause. That data has to be put into some context. After all, only 15% of all white people play golf. The 7% of African-Americans that play golf also equates to the same percentage of total participation among African-Americans. Thus, while 85% of people playing golf are white, golf participation among whites is not spectacularly higher than African-Americans as a percentage of the population of each race.

That may be comforting to a white person looking to show that golf has improved in its willingness to welcome African-Americans to play. The reality, though, is that for every 10 people that go to a golf course, the odds say that one or maybe two of them will be African-American. The rest will likely be white since you cannot have half of a person (Asian-Americans make up about 4% of golfers). That is very telling of a game that still is yet to prove that its makeup can be more like the demographic makeup of the entire country.

To the credit of the game, though, youth involvement among African-Americans is increasing thanks to programs like the First Tee. Funded and sponsored by the golf industry, the First Tee is a program that seeks to encourage young people to take up the game, learn its positive values, and apply them to their lives off of the course. Over the life of its existence, the First Tee has had an exceptional retention rate and its growth has been meteoric. As of the end of 2007, there are 206 chapters of the First Tee nationwide and the program has introduced 1.9 million youths to the game.

That is all well and good, but the main question for our purpose is how many of those 1.5 million cited are African-American? According to the 2006 Annual Review of the First Tee, 20% of kids touched by the First Tee are African-American. Compared to that 7% figure for the total golf population, the First Tee is out in front and getting the game and its positive values to African-American kids. In total, that means nearly 400,000 African-American kids have been introduced to golf thanks to the First Tee. Ultimately, we do not have a lot of data to indicate if they stick with the game into adulthood, but this data presents a great start.

The participation picture ranges from cautiously optimistic to stunningly negative depending on which combination of smoke and mirrors you want to use. With an unclear perspective on playing the game, it may be difficult to know for certain if the game is in fact more inclusive of African-Americans. That means that we have to turn to how the game is perceived and presented in order to give us a clearer picture.

The perception of the game of golf is not good. With the exception of Joe Louis Barrow, CEO of the First Tee, and the world's greatest golfer, Tiger Woods, I would have a tough time naming for you incredibly prominent African-Americans in golf either in terms of the industry or public perception. I would add in Jim Thorpe, but not many people know about the Champions Tour. Now that I have eliminated those three choices for your response, answer for me the name of a prominent African-American person in golf. Got nothing? That is the perception of the game of golf.

White men rule the sport. It is that reality that drove Martha Burke wild in her heyday just four short years ago when she openly protested Augusta National's lack of women among their membership. That reality has not changed, but the emphasis has. For this discussion, the male part is not nearly as important as the white part.

The faces of the game, sans Tiger Woods, are all white. The Commissioner of the PGA Tour is white. The LPGA Tour Commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, is white. The incoming President of the USGA is white.

The outgoing President of the USGA, Walter Driver, is a member of prestigious Peachtree Golf Club. Not that anyone knows this, but Peachtree has exactly zero African-American members. It is within the rights of the club to have no African-American members (maybe there have been no African-Americans that have expressed interest in joining), but the fact that the President of the governing body of the game is a member of such club is very striking. More striking is that the USGA had to adopt a policy to exclude clubs from consideration for hosting their championships that lack diversity in their membership. It is hypocritical that is the case, but the policy was not adopted during Driver's tenure. It was done in 1991 after the PGA Championship at all-white Shoal Creek CC in Birmingham, Alabama. So I am saved from talking about another irony of golf.

Even if you had no clue about Walter Driver or even who he is, I am very certain that you know all about Augusta National. Though the membership roster is not public knowledge — nor does it have to be — the estimates for the number of African-American members of the club is limited to a handful. It was not until 1990 and in the wake of the Shoal Creek incident that Augusta National admitted its first African-American member.

The host of the world's most famous golf tournament has a very limited African-American membership. It is well within their rights to do so, but it certainly does not help the perception of the game when the on course history and lore of the Masters is compared to the history of racial isolation at the host club. The tournament organizers that are the face of the Masters and Augusta National are largely southern born, well-off white men. Outside of the discussion of race, there is nothing wrong with being born in the south or being white. Put them together and start talking about race in golf, though, and that quickly can become a subject that those within the game would rather avoid.

Augusta National is not alone, though, and is not alone in its impact on how golf is perceived. Professional golf is not exactly a shining example of racial diversity. Again, name for me any African-American person that plays professional golf. You're going to name Tiger Woods and that is it. Do not underestimate for a second that the greatest golfer in the world is part African-American, but the lack of African-American persons anywhere on the PGA Tour money list works hard against the case that golf has become more inclusionary.

Even still, Woods' perception in the African-American community appears to vary. Bloggers and columnists have railed against Woods' declaration that he is a mix of Asian, white, and African-American gene pools. They want him to actively identify more with being African-American than the other two parts of his genetic makeup. Some have even gone so far to say that Woods is not an African-American athlete. Critics have also scolded Woods for not being out in front on the comment by Tilghman, at least in the way they would want.

Woods, through his agent Mark Steinberg, declared this issue dead almost immediately. That reaction was not what many in the African-American community wanted to hear. Rather, they wanted to hear more along the lines of the reaction of Reverend Al Sharpton, who called for Tilghman's job on CNN air after the incident. Nevermind that he had claimed he had not seen the video or heard the audio of the incident, but it was his declaration that all racism must be purged (even the barely visible kind) that seems to have resonated with at least some African-Americans.

The critique of Woods may be warranted in some fashion as I wish he were more open with his views at times. Still, it is within his right to not speak them and to identify himself more broadly that just one part of who he is. The decision to do that appears to impact the perception that an African-American man is on top of the golf world in almost every conceivable way — sponsorship, on course dominance, and public appearance. That is incredibly telling.

Comments made by Fuzzy Zoeller in 1997 after Woods' first Masters jacket still sting in the realm of race relations. People who have no clue about golf could still tell you about what Fuzzy said. Maybe being named Fuzzy helps recollection of the incident, but the fact that a largely incidental public name is remembered that vividly speaks to the perception of race in golf.

The evidence seems to indicate that African-American people are only a small part of the game of golf, and that even Tiger Woods does not even appear to be helping the issue. That knowledge is not exactly groundbreaking, though. What would be constructive is to understand the reasons for a lack of participation among African-Americans and what can be done about it.

Statistically speaking, African-American people make less money than whites and have a lower rate of college graduation, which impacts earning potential. As with any group of people and golf, if you do not have the means to afford the game, then playing simply is not an option regardless of level of interest. Studies done by the NGF and former USGA Technical Director Frank Thomas indicate that people are driven away by the expensive nature of the hobby. Thus, if the stats indicate that a smaller percentage of African-Americans can afford the game compared to white, we now know at least part of the difference in participation.

Another issue is access to resources. A number of cities in the United States have excellent networks of public courses in both suburban areas and urban centers. Still, transportation can become an issue. In many cities, a high percentage of people do not own cars. That means public transportation is the only way to get to the course. Those networks may not be that attractive for loading and carrying golf equipment to and from the course. For kids in suburbs, they need parental support to drive them to courses in addition to the money needed for greens fees. Without time and the means to make that happen, participation for any group of people — young or old, African-American or white — is difficult.

Then there is always the influence of peers. This is a perpetuating cycle that works against the game, especially when it comes to minorities. People tend to take up hobbies with their friends. That is a fact of life regardless of race. Since less than one in 10 African-American people play golf and participation is skewed to the rich, it could very well be difficult to find golfing buddies to learn the game and play it. If people never even get started, then how could golf take off among African-Americans? Certainly, the First Tee is helping to that end by giving playing partners to youth through their chapters.

By getting them started early, kids can mature into golfers that do not need their friends in order to play. Still, the positive impact of that work will not truly be felt for years.

The issues of time, money, and resources, though, are issues that cannot be addressed by golf or the golf industry. Certainly, golf courses could offer discounted fees to kids (and do), and niche companies could introduce solid equipment at reasonable prices. Still, anything beyond that is either clearly bigoted in some fashion or simply will not work. That means that socioeconomic conditions have to change in order for participation among African-Americans to change for the better. It is a larger societal issue that impacts participation.

The golf industry does not help itself, though. With faces that are almost all white and male, the perception that golf is a sport that anyone can enjoy and even succeed in does not exist. The industry is also so widespread and scattered that golf cannot collectively make a conscious decision to make diversity a priority. Organizations — clubs and professional tours in particular — need to make individual decisions that best promote the game to all people in their communities. Not only does that mean encouraging people to play golf, but it also means examining and exorcising the demons of racial exclusion in the sport. Golf may not be able to fix its own problem, but it certainly can go a long way toward being ready when the things it cannot control are fixed.

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