Where are all the black golfers? Nearly two decades after Tiger Woods' arrival, golf still struggles to attract minorities
This report comes to you from the pressroom at Doral. Excuse me -- from the media center at Trump Doral, home of the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Back in the day, when it was still a pressroom and the place and the event were both called Doral, the fields were so much more colorful. We're talking Jim Thorpe and Calvin Peete (African-American golfers), Lee Trevino and Victor Regalado (Hispanic), the Ozaki brothers (Asian). These days, it's Bubba Watson's pink driver that passes for color.
The dearth of African-Americans at the game's elite levels, professional and amateur, is a particularly strange and unwelcome development in American golf, given that the country's black population has reached 39 million. At Doral in March, there was one lone African-American in the field -- Tiger Woods -- and he seems about as culturally black as John Boehner. Actually, there were a good number of African-American golfers in the field, in a manner of speaking. Tim Clark, Ernie Els, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel are all South Africans with U.S. homes, loading up on Tour dollars.
The Tour caddie yard, once a beautiful example of integration, is so white it looks like Little Rock Central High School, circa 1955. The yard's denizens are a bunch of really capable, professional people, many of them famous these days in their own right. Bones and Joey and Fluff. But whatever happened to Golf Ball and Killer and Bebop? These days you can hardly tell the difference between the players and the loopers. The caddies are incredibly competent, as are their bosses. Put the whole group together -- 300 or so people, most weeks -- and it's an impressive collection of white men. The only thing missing is some soul. That's why James Hahn going Gangnam Style at the Phoenix Open went semi-viral. A golfer who can dance? What a concept.
Golf wasn't supposed to be this way, this sea of white, here in 2013. In 1997, when Tiger won the Masters -- by 12! -- the floodgates were supposed to open to minority golfers in general and black golfers in particular. A lot of us felt that way, I among them. I typed these words on that Sunday night 16 years ago, post-hug:
As for Jones's club, its position is diminished too. The core members, old rich white men in green coats, for decades were the stewards of the game, and they handled the responsibility ably, even if they were slow to invite a black man to play in their annual invitational or to join their club. Now there's a 21-year-old black man among them, with his own green coat and an honorary membership, who is suddenly the most powerful force in the game. Upon winning, Woods said that kids -- black kids, white kids, city kids, suburban kids -- will take up the game in numbers never before seen. If Woods says that will happen, it will. Accurate assessments are his strong suit.
In Division I men's collegiate golf, still the main incubation chamber for PGA Tour players, the golfers, overwhelmingly, are white kids from country-club backgrounds with easy access to range balls and to a guy in the shop who knows all about custom shafts. At the 2012 PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship, the winning squads from the men's and women's draws (Texas Pan-American and Bethune-Cookman, respectively) didn't have a single black golfer on their rosters.
The other day I was talking to Clay Homan, the golf coach at Mississippi State, a historic land-grant school in a state that is one-third black. Coach Homan has a golfer from Puerto Rico and two from Iceland. (Iceland!) He has found white players from all over the Magnolia State, but no black ones. "I just don't see that many African-American golfers," Homan said. "I wish it were otherwise." He knows the game is better, more interesting, when it is more diverse. You could say the same about Congress, the IBM board, the student body at MIT.
Here in the media center, there are little placards telling you where to sit and set up your laptop. The placard next to me is marked AFRICAN AMERICAN GOLFER'S DIGEST. The seat that goes with it is empty. I've never heard of the publication, so I have just now googled it. It's a quarterly magazine with a fascinating website. It makes you wonder what Golf Magazine must look like to many black readers. Scrolling down the home page, there was one picture after another of African-American golfers, just as any random issue of Golf might feature Brandt Snedeker and Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan, to cite three especially white golfers. African American Golfer's Digest was featuring Sheila Johnson, the first black woman on the USGA executive committee, and Barbara Wilson, the first African-American to play on the boys' golf team at East Lyme (Conn.) High. It had an ad for Sam Barnes golf art, "specializing in original golf-related fine art prints featuring African-Americans." What was notably missing were men like Snedeker and Kuchar and Mahan who just happened to be black. No wonder the seat was empty. There weren't too many stories for AAGD at Doral. Just the one guy, really.
Arthur Johnson is an authority on this subject. I happened to sit with him recently at lunch at the Trump course in West Palm Beach, Fla. We were both there for a fund-raiser. He was wearing one of those wildly colorful Coogi sweaters, made popular by Bill Cosby in the 1980s and later kept relevant by The Notorius B.I.G. and O.J. da Juiceman. You could spend a month in the Trump clubhouse and not see another gent in Coogi.
Johnson is an agent who works with Calvin Peete and Lee Elder and other African-American golfers. The old names spring forth from him effortlessly, from days when the Tour had 10 times more black players than today. Jim Thorpe and his brother Chuck Thorpe, whom Johnson said had more talent but a lesser head. Charlie Sifford and Charlie Owens. Jim Dent. Teddy Rhodes. Dolphus Hull, aka Golf Ball, who caddied for Calvin Peete and Raymond Floyd and other legends. Johnson knows first-hand what the rise of the motorized cart and the death of the country-club caddie yard has done in terms of producing black Tour players.
Woods won at Doral. The greatest golfer of all time, or at the very least one of them. He must be inspiring millions of kids, right? Black kids, Asian kids, Native-American kids, white kids. Cablinasian kids. Change has got to be coming, right? Of course it is.
Unless it's not. Check back with me in 2029.
This article appeared in the July issue of Golf Magazine.