PGA Still Scoring Bogeys on Race
I'm not a golf fan. Never have been. And the way the game is going – backwards – I probably never will be.
Take this week, for example, as the game puts on its most-revered event, the Masters. The Masters, which starts Thursday, is still being held at an exclusive country club, where the first black member wasn't admitted until 1991, at a time when our country is more inclusive than ever. The invited field of 100 or so players includes no sons of a black American family, unless you ignore Tiger Woods' Thai mother, which most people, especially black people, do. The game that when Tiger was born in 1975 counted eight black players on its tour now has none, except Tiger, once again depending on your definition of African-American. The LPGA, the ladies' Tour, last year decided to implement an English-only rule for its players until public astonishment and legal threats forced it to rethink what would've been a racist rule given that the Asian women dominating its play were the only ones likely to be affected.
That's regression. NASCAR is more diverse.
There isn't a major sport in this country in the last 50 years that has stood so steadfastly in the doorway to diversity, like George Wallace did infamously to black students trying to get in to the University of Alabama in 1963, as golf.
Only a few years before Wallace's stand, golf had a "Caucasians-only" rule. That was roughly a dozen years after baseball allowed Jackie Robinson to integrate its game.
Golf doesn't have to be this way. I heard Dr. J, Julius Erving, who now owns a golf course in Atlanta, say this week, on an ESPN's Outside the Lines' program that I was on, that meritocracy ruled golf and that black players could break through only when they were good enough. The first part of his statement was correct; the second part was not.
If golf doesn't want to be perceived as a last bastion of a day thankfully gone by, it can exercise means to do so. It can imitate golf at historically black colleges and universities, like the men's team at Savannah State, that award opportunities to play golf to white players as well as black players. The Savannah State men's team is all white.
What pro golf can do specifically to diversify its ranks is what it does at almost every tournament. It can get its tournament sponsors to offer exemptions to qualified black golfers just like it does to other golfers for whatever reasons. That was how Michelle Wie so often played the LPGA until recently. That was how Annika Sorenstam played with men at the Colonial a few years ago.
The Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles at Riviera Country Club voluntarily did just that back in February. It granted an exemption in the name of Charlie Sifford, who roughly half a century ago became the first black man to be allowed to join the PGA Tour. The exemption in Sifford's name was set aside for a black player of note. He turned out to be Vincent Johnson, a 22-year-old rookie who garnered some attention in 2007 when he won the PGA of America's National Minority Collegiate Golf Championship by 12 shots.
Johnson wasn't the first black golfer to get an exemption, but he is one of very few. He joined Kevin Hall, a black deaf golfer who was the first black golfer to get a golf scholarship at Ohio State. He won the Big 10 championship in 2004 and, after turning pro, asked for and received several PGA Tour event sponsor's exemptions over the past several seasons.
Golf Channel anchor Rich Lerner questioned me on Outside the Lines about what good such exemptions would do for black golfers aspiring to make the tour. I didn't get to squeeze in my answer, but Johnson explained the benefit to Sports Illustrated upon receiving the Sifford exemption. Johnson, who won 68 junior events and two collegiate titles while attending Oregon State before graduating in 2008 as team captain, said the exemption gave him a chance to garner knowledge from experienced pros and learn intricacies of a Tour course from working with a Tour caddie. That wasn't something he could get on, say, the Hooters Tour. Only at a PGA Tour event could Johnson catch the eye of a big-name sponsor that might want to invest the kind of money it takes to develop a big-event game.
The keepers of golf often like to point out, as Dr. J did, that only hard work and low scores turn a player into a Tour member and that color and economic status have nothing to do with it. Look at Lee Trevino, they say, who grew up poor and learned to play golf in between shining shoes and caddying.
That story is now 50 years old. There haven't been many like it since.
PGA Tour vice president Ty Votaw told me by phone from Augusta, Ga., on Wednesday that the Tour can't force its events to be affirmative, as was Northern Trust, in diversifying their fields.
"We don't get into encouraging specific tournaments on what to do with sponsor exemptions," he said. "Those events control their sponsor's exemptions."
Votaw, echoing Tiger, said the Tour concentrates its diversification efforts on its First Tee program. It was started 12 years ago, after Tiger first won the Masters, to develop golf talent among kids of color. Votaw said the program has increased the number of minority kids who play golf and, given more time, will produce some minority golf pros.
I'll become more than a casual fan when it does.
Kevin B. Blackistone is a panelist on ESPN's Around the Horn and the Shirley Povich Chair in Sports Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. A former award-winning sports columnist for The Dallas Morning News, he currently lives in Silver Spring, Md.