The State of Blacks in Golf

John Paul Newport, Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2009

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From a golf perspective, the most intriguing aspect of the inauguration festivities was the appearance on Sunday, at the HBO-produced Lincoln Memorial concert, of the world’s First Golfer, Tiger Woods, also an African-American. This was of interest, first, because Mr. Woods appeared nervous. For us golf fans, it was the first time I can recall getting to witness Mr. Cool operating out of his comfort zone, which suggests that his serenity in the clutch may not be a gift from God after all, but something that can be learned. There’s hope for us all.

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Despite several similarities between Messrs. Obama and Woods–both are about 6 feet 1 inch tall, are multiracial with one foreign-born parent, and rose to the apex of their professions by virtue of preternatural talent and exceptional focus–there is one striking difference. The organization that Mr. Obama leads, the U.S. government, reflects the rich racial composition of American society at large, whereas the organization that Mr. Woods dominates, the PGA Tour, does not. Many hoped early on that Mr. Woods’s example would change the face of professional golf, but that has not happened. And the half-dozen leaders of the African-American golf community I spoke with this week would like to see that situation change as soon as possible.

‘If you turn on the golf tournament Sunday and Tiger Woods isn’t playing, what do you see? About 140 white guys competing and no blacks,” said Eddie Payton, the golf coach at historically black Jackson State in Mississippi (and the brother of the late football great Walter Payton). “What kind of message does that send to kids? That they should watch basketball instead, even though they aren’t going to grow up to be 6-foot-10? If we don’t get some black players on Tour soon, we’re going to lose a generation of potential African-American golfers.”

At the recreational level, African-Americans’ participation was only about half the 14.5% rate of whites in 2003, according to the most recent data available from Golf 20/20, an industry group whose charter is to expand the game. And there are shockingly few African-Americans among the club pros and teachers in the PGA of America–only 145 members and apprentices out of about 28,000. Mr. Woods is the only active African-American on the PGA Tour. The LPGA has none.

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Why the paucity of African-Americans at the top level? “They need help, they need money,” said Charlie Sifford, now 86 years old, the only African-American player in the World Golf Hall of Fame. In February for the first time, an exemption named in honor of Mr. Sifford will open a place in the field for a minority player at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. “Maybe something will come out of that, maybe not,” Mr. Sifford said.

Making it to the PGA Tour requires a long and expensive apprenticeship, ideally starting with national junior competition, then college golf in a top program with the best coaching and facilities, then three to five years or more of competition on the developmental tours, typically requiring a stake of $70,000 to $100,000 a year. This process overwhelmingly favors those who either grow up as the sons or daughters of Tour players or teaching pros, and thus have easy access to instruction and courses, or come from wealthy families or clubs, whose members frequently band together to sponsor promising players postcollege. Not many young African-Americans fall into those categories.

“The main thing that’s missing for young African-American players is training,” said Lee Elder, the first black to play in the Masters. “We need some kind of academy or training ground that will support minority golfers who want to take their games to the highest level.”

To their credit, the PGA of America and other organizations have become more proactive in reaching out to African-Americans. The PGA now sponsors the Minority Collegiate Golf Championship each May, at which the number of competitors has grown to 187 last year from 92 in 1998, and uses it as a recruiting vehicle. Although its primary purpose is to introduce youngsters to the life values inherent in golf, not to develop great players, the First Tee program is nonetheless working on a concept to help identify young single-digit-handicap minority players and match them with top regional instructors.

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