MEDINAH, Ill. -- I was walking out of the media center Saturday evening at Medinah Country Club, on my way to the 18th green to soak up the crowd's reaction to Ian Poulter's eye-popping birdie putt, when I saw a familiar face standing behind the rows of baseball-capped reporters pecking away on deadline. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, dressed in a blue suit and a charcoal gray turtleneck, was talking quietly with a few associates.
"Are you here to speak to the American team?" I asked him.
He shook his head softly. Jackson was here to speak to PGA of America officials about bringing golf to the inner city. Tiger Woods has boosted interest in the game among young African-Americans, but there aren't programs in schools to turn those kids into golfers, Jackson said, or anywhere to play if those programs existed. As the game becomes more diverse and international at the professional level, there's an opportunity to grow the game in new places, he said.
"We here to make golf look more universal," he said. "Golf used to be exclusively white and male, but it's changing. It's becoming more diverse."
Jackson turns 71 next week, and he still cuts an impressive figure, tall and strong looking. His hands are as large as Arnold Palmer's. The former presidential candidate and longtime civil rights activist is a longtime Chicago resident, and he said he's always been a golf fan. Jackson caddied when he was growing up in Greenville, S.C., -- "we couldn't play then" -- and he listed the African-American pioneers in the game. Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder.
"Joe Louis was a great golfer," Jackson said. "It was his passion."
The game might be changing slowly, but it is changing, he said.
"Look at the announcement that Augusta National accepted two women members," Jackson said. "We protested that for 15 years." Jackson called Augusta’s opening its membership "a step in the right direction," though he added caustically that it happened "48 years after the Civil Rights Act."
So on Saturday he came out to watch some golf and maybe help grow the game as well.
"We want to broaden the base," Jackson said. "With growth everybody wins."
Jackson sure picked the right place for that message. No event in golf has broader appeal than the Ryder Cup. It's an exhibition in the best sense: that is, the Ryder Cup shows why golf is so much fun, in a way that a 72-hole stroke play event can't because team match play is the only time we get to see professional golfers play the way we do.
There's not much that’s fun about a 72-hole stroke-play event. I've heard it best described as watching someone defuse a bomb over four days. There's tension and excitement, but little joy. Team match play is a hoot. That was especially true Saturday in the afternoon's final three matches. All three were decided on the 18th hole, and the level of play kept getting better.
Tiger hits it to eight feet on 17. Then Luke Donald hits it to 4 feet. Dustin Johnson makes a crucial long putt on 17. Rory McIlroy can't stop smiling while watching his partner Poulter go on a birdie rampage the last five holes. Recreational golfers don't play at the same level, but they know those same feelings. For a golfer watching those matches, you want to say to your nongolfing wife, husband, sibling, friend or co-worker: "That, there, is why I love to play golf."
"I think everyone realized what the Ryder Cup is all about when you saw those
last three matches," European team captain Jose Maria Olazabal said. "The level of the game that was played and the intensity. That's what the Ryder Cup is all about."
The National Golf Foundation, an industry group that watches golf participation closely and worriedly, came to the same conclusion as Jackson about women and minority participation being key to growing the game in a 2010 report, "Minority Golf Participation in the United States." Golf participation declined slightly in the 2000s; in 2011 the NGF estimated there were about 25.7 million active golfers in the United States.
"A smaller percentage of Caucasian non-gofers (white non-Hispanic) express interest in playing the game compared to other races," the NGF report said. "Perhaps that is because golf has historically been dominated by Caucasians, and most have already decided how they feel about the game. Meanwhile, other races are now beginning to discover golf and are more open to it."
That's the challenge for golf industry leaders -- many of whom are involved in this event as players, organizers, broadcasters and sponsors -- and they get no better promotion for the game than the Ryder Cup. Let's hope they make the most of it.