A Walk Nearly Spoiled (Part Two)

By Conaway B. Haskins III
Updated: April 10, 2009

Golf RICHMOND, Va. — Maybe it’s the magnolias and moonlight or maybe it’s just the early springtime Georgia humidity. Without fail, whenever the Masters rolls around, the sporting world turns its thoughts to the persnickety issue of race. Like clockwork, ESPN did an “Outside The Lines” feature last weekend on the very subject.

Anyone living and watching golf in the last 30 years know the territory all too well – a prominent tournament founded by the game’s greatest legend is played at location that excludes blacks as members (but not as caddies or servants) and for decades disallows participation in its marquee event by otherwise qualifed African-American golfers.

Eventually, the club opens its doors to men of color (sorry, ladies) as members and tournament participants (a handful play) until one day a skinny, telegenic multiracial phenom obliterates its course records. Somehow, you get the feeling that the so-called golf gods are smiling.

It makes for great television and great theater, but that story is way to simple to just leave at that.

Every second of every day, somewhere in America, someone is hitting a golf ball. Such a statement may mask the reality of golf as a mostly daylight endeavor, but over 30 million people in the US feed an industry worth over $76 billion annually in goods and services.

Over 10 percent of the nation’s total population over the age of six is hooked on the sport that Mark Twain famously described as a “bad walk spoiled.” The recent economic downturn has put a crimp in the industry’s growth as rounds played, equipment purchases, and club construction have curtailed. Nonetheless, golf remains a big deal in the US.

From the rarified air of Augusta National to the windmills and elephants at local miniature golf facilities, the golf economy balloons to $195 billion after primary, secondary and related activities are considered, providing work to over 2 million Americans. This works out to a golf-related payroll exceeding $61 billion. From a shepherd’s sport birthed in Scottish pastures to the commanding heights of market capitalism, the game of golf is big business.

According to the National Golf Foundation, the leading industry research organization, that 30 million figure includes only 1.5 million African-American adults, or five percent. Put another way, there are currently more blacks in America’s criminal justice system than on American golf courses.

While the leading black golf publication, the African American Golfers Digest, estimates that some 3.5 million black youths annual express interest in the sport, the number of continue on to adulthood as players rapidly dissipates. The irony is that the world’s greatest golfer, Tiger Woods, is a multiracial phenomenon with a black father and Asian mother.

Yet despite the up-tick in African-American interest in the European export, and the rising affluence among black communities nationwide, the ascension of Tiger Woods is a solo journey as no other blacks play on the PGA Tour, golf’s biggest stage.

Multiple theories abound as to the why African-American golf participation, and subsequently the number of black pros, lags behind. Debert Cook, a noted African-American golf observer and publisher of the AAGD, attributes it to several factors.

She says that, “Blacks have a difficult time getting to the professional level because of several things: Completing [ PGA] Q[ualifying] School successfully and qualifying for the [professional] tournaments…many are ill-prepared due to their lack of necessary funding, sponsorship and financial support that is necessary to help them and then to keep them playing at their highest level.”

For her, golfers seeking to play at the highest professional levels must have access to “playing on the best courses and continuously working on their game.” Though similar requirements exist for all sports, she feels that certain elements make golf more difficult than others.

“The difference is in the expensive cost of the game, training, course fees and equipment that is needed for players to develop and perform at a top level,” says the entrepreneur whose New York-based quarterly publication recently celebrated it fifth anniversary.

For Tony McClean, the lack of black participation is a betrayal of black history with the game in the US. The editor of the Black Athlete Sports Network – an on-line media outlet that serves as the sports wire service for the African-American newspaper industry – McClean asserts that, “There’s no doubt that since the emergence of Tiger Woods on the golf scene, the perception is that more blacks have become aware of and have taken up the sport.”

But this contemporary viewpoint masks what he sees as a longer history of the black presence on the green grasses of the game. Says McClean, “If you look carefully at the overall history of blacks either involved and or playing the sport, blacks have more than had a major role in the sports overall history.”

He makes note of milestones such as Dr. George Grant’s invention of the golf tee in December of 1899 to Ms. Cook’s founding the African-American Golfers Digest, the play of professional golfing pioneers like Charlie Sifford (the first black on the PGA Tour – the Northern Trust Open awarded an exemption into the 2009 tournament in his honor), Lee Elder (the first to win a PGA tournament), as well as the contributions of lesser known figures like John Shippen, Bill Spiller, and Ted Rhodes. McClean sees the path taken by Tiger Woods as one paved by previous generations.

Still, he is well aware of the darker side of the game, one where “despite the vast history of Blacks and dominance of Woods on the highest level of the sport…the mainstream (i.e. white-dominated) media…still looks at the ‘phenomenon’ of blacks in golf as a ‘fad.'”

He points to the “hateful words and comments of Fuzzy Zoeller,” a popular champion golfer who made off-color remarks about Tiger Woods prior to a Master’s event a decade ago and to the recently controversial remarks by Golf Channel analyst Kelly Tilghman that the only way for his fellow PGA pros to stop Tiger Woods would be to “lynch him in a back alley.”

Despite the 1.5 million black participants, McClean firmly believes that such incidents are “constant reminders that, even after all these years, blacks are still looked upon as subservient in a sport that has been controlled by whites.”

I got a small entrée into the world of aspiring black golfers back in 2005. Writing for the BASN and AAGD, I covered the story of two African-American men who were selected to participate in the second season of The Golf Channel’s highly regarded reality show, “The Big Break II.”

After speaking with both men, Jay McNair and Scott Yancy, it became clear that only one was seriously considering making a run for the top of the sport. Though both men were among the earliest of the 10 men eliminated from the competition and its prize of automatic entry on to the NGA/Hooters Tour, Scott Yancy had clearly been bitten by a golf bug strong enough to make him persist.

A 27-year old, Glen Carbon, Illinois native seeking to break away from the pack of 30 million, Scott currently works at a Victoria’s Secret store near his hometown. By day, he stocks the store with panties, bras, and the latest fragrance offerings, but come closing time, he hits the course, honing his game so that he is prepare when his time comes.

Normally, a wannabe pro golfer toiling away in the land of retail would not draw much attention. Yet, what makes Scott unique speaks to the oft-hidden lines of demarcation that make professional golf exhilarating and unattainable at the same time. Scott is African-American.

As an African-American attempting to make it in the lily-white world of competitive golf, Scott believes that his race has colored his experiences in the game. “I do feel that, at some stages, being African-American has made things harder for me.” Still he harbors no lingering sense that his ethnicity will be a long-term impediment.

Looking to the example set by the world’s top golfer, he says, “As we’ve seen in Tiger Woods, just because you’re a minority doesn’t mean you can’t succeed; it just means that since there are so many more of the majority, you need to be that much better because you’re competing against them.”

Scott does not blame white racism or class barriers for his lack of success, but he does has less than kind words for black business owners, who fail to sponsor aspiring pros on the same level as their white corporate counterparts.

“I have felt let down…that more minority business owners haven’t taken an interest in helping me achieve my goal. If I were a person with money, I would help a good kid like me simply because I like seeing people chase their dreams.” In his mind, these are the people who can help foster young black golfing talent.

“I’ve met so many people that have the ability to sponsor me for a year and not even miss the money, but for some reason they choose not to. It’s frustrating, but it makes me that much more focused on achieving this thing because I want to be the person that helps grow this game by offering sponsorships and support to our minority players trying to enter the game.”

Looking beyond simple playing success, Scott says that his “entire motivation is to open the door for the next guys so they don’t have to go through what I’ve gone through.”