We are not golf, yet

Golf’s latest diversity efforts may finally move the needle and bring minorities into the game

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times: Golf needs to look more like America. Steve Mona promoted the idea years ago, when he was the World Golf Foundation’s CEO, and explained why: “Diversity is fundamental to the future success of the golf industry.”

Of course, today’s golf industry doesn’t look like America. If it did, 13 of every 100 people on fairways and in clubhouses, executive offices and boardrooms would be African Americans, and women would outnumber men.

Instead, according to a 2018 report from We Are Golf, only 3% of the jobs in golf are held by Blacks. The PGA of America counts only 186 African Americans among its 29,000 members. Of the 32 men and women among the PGA’s board members and executive leaders, only one is Black. The PGA Tour has four Black players and one Black executive. The National Golf Foundation’s board consists of seven men and one woman, all of them white.

Fewer Black people are playing golf, as well. Between 2015 and 2018, according to the NGF, the number of African American golfers fell from 1.1 million to 800,000, a 27% decline.

A lethal pandemic, a looming recession and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement have brought golf’s racial disparities into sharp relief and forced people in positions of power to re-assess the status quo. In a letter to the Club Managers Association of America, Jeff Morgan, the group’s CEO, acknowledged that he’s “trying to learn more to better equip myself as a person in society who wants to do better.” 

“I accept my responsibility that I must learn more and act more,” he declared.

Golf has historically avoided talking about race and racism, and in the past statements like Morgan’s might have been dismissed as lip service. But today, golf’s leaders have been alerted to white privilege and structural racism. While nobody expects them to become agents of social change, they’re unmistakably trying to understand the role their organizations are expected to play in a changing world and figure out how they might contribute to America’s social healing.

“The tone of the talk has changed,” said Jim Beatty, executive editor of the African American Golfer’s Digest. “The leadership in golf recognizes that things need to be done, and there’s more action taking place than I’ve ever seen. I’m encouraged.”

Last year, Beatty published a report titled “We Are Not Golf, Yet.” Golf has, however, recently taken actions that might someday make the industry look more like America. Among them:

  • Jay Monahan’s announcement that the PGA Tour will donate “at least $100 million” to “racial and social injustice causes” over the next 10 years. Some of the money will be spent on programs involving America’s historically Black colleges and universities and the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour, which prepares African Americans and other minorities for careers in golf.
  • The CMAA’s creation of a Diversity & Equity in Leadership Task Force. The task force’s mission hasn’t been spelled out, but Morgan calls the move “an important step forward” in helping CMAA address “the needs of an increasingly diverse society.”
  • The PGA’s decision to strip Horton Smith’s name from an award that honors its members’ contributions to education. For golf, it’s the equivalent of removing the statue of a Confederate general from a town square. Smith, the PGA’s president from 1952 to 1954, was a tenacious defender of the organization’s now-expunged Caucasians-only policies, and his tenure was part of what the group calls “a failed chapter in our history.”
  • A pending name change at Plantation Country Club in Boise. Plantation’s new owners believe the club’s current name, with its racist connotations, doesn’t fit their vision of an “inclusive and welcoming club for all members of the community.
  • The election of Renee Powell, the second African-American woman to compete on the LPGA Tour, as an at-large member of the PGA’s board. Powell is the head pro at the venue her parents built, Clearview Golf Club in Ohio, which is still the only U.S. course designed, built, owned and operated by African Americans. 
  • The PGA Tour’s hiring of Marsha Oliver as the Players Championship’s director of community outreach. Oliver, formerly the city of Jacksonville’s director of public affairs, will oversee the Players’ charitable activities.

The appointments of Powell and Oliver are especially meaningful to Mike Cooper, chairman of We Are golf’s Diversity Task Force, because they gave two black women a voice in creating and implementing policies that can benefit minority golfers and shape the industry’s future.

“TV commercials and pictures in magazines can have an impact on the public perception of golf, but the reality of the business also has to change,” he explained. “Participation will grow as jobs and business opportunities grow. We need a shift in golf’s economics.”

In February, Beatty hopes to contribute to the shift. He’s set to co-host, with Golf Digest, the inaugural African American Golf Expo & Forum, an event where majority and minority CEOs, industry leaders and manufacturers can build relationships and start doing business together. So far, the National Golf Course Owners Association, the Superintendents Association of America and ClubCorp have agreed to participate in the Atlanta event. 

“We want to be a catalyst for change that becomes systemic and ongoing,” said Beatty, who’s also a member of We Are Golf’s Diversity Task Force. 

Cooper wrote We Are Golf’s diversity reports in 2009 and 2015 and completed a third, still-unpublished report earlier this year. He says he’s encouraged by data indicating that 16% of the golf industry’s workforce was non-white in 2018, up from 11% in 2015.

“We’re trending up,” he said. “We’ve spent years trying to make a business case for minority participation. Now we’re finding candidates for jobs.”

The data is important. Cooper and Beatty know that conversations and roundtable discussions, however well-intentioned, don’t genuinely move the needle on diversity and inclusion. They’re pleased to see the industry creating pathways that might eventually bring more people of color into golf. They think the time for action is now.

“We’ve all heard enough talk,” Beatty said. “Now we need measurable, quantifiable action, or else the words that have been spoken will be viewed as shallow and meaningless.”

 

Robert J. Vasilak is one of Golf, Inc.’s contributing editors. He tweets at @RJVasilakGolf.

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