PGA Championship 2017: The PGA of America Turned Its Back on Its Own Mission

July 31, 2016

The PGA of America, one of the grand old stewards of the game and proud proprietor of the PGA Championship, is celebrating its centennial this year. Founded in April 1916, the organization oversees more than 28,000 teaching professionals around the country and nobly aims to “grow the game” beyond the elite silos in which it thrives.

One hundred years. You’d think such a milestone might prompt some serious soul searching, especially since, well, the game isn’t growing. Since reaching its peak at 30.6 million golfers in 2003, golf participation plummeted to 24.1 million by 2015, according to the National Golf Foundation. Many factors have contributed to the dip, but last year NGF senior vice president Greg Nathan told Men’s Journal that, “One of the major reasons golf hasn’t been growing is because, historically, it has not been welcoming enough.”

That’s why I was surprised when the PGA of America announced last Friday that, despite the national outrage sparked by the passage of North Carolina House Bill 2, the organization was moving forward with plans to stage the 2017 PGA Championship at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. The PGA punted on its first opportunity to show the golf world that this next century is going to be different from the last.

HB2 grabbed headlines as the infamous “bathroom bill” because it prevents transgender people from using the bathroom corresponding to their gender identities, but its provisions are much more far-reaching. The legislation not only restricts anti-discrimination protections for LGBT citizens of the state but also prevents cities from enacting their own legislation expanding those protections, prompting the ACLU to call it “the most extreme anti-LGBT measure in the country.”

The bill has already cost North Carolina dearly in cash and culture as all manner of businesses, from Bruce to basketball, have moved or cancelled events planned within its borders in protest. When NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that he would move the 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte, reportedly costing the city $100 million in lost revenue, he paved the way for the PGA of America and its CEO, Pete Bevacqua, to join the boycott. But Bevacqua chose words over actions, issuing a statement that suggested the PGA was taking the high road when really it was taking the easy way out.

“We made this decision well in advance of HB2, and we’ll continue to let people know where we stand and what our mindset is. And that’s quite frankly what we intend to do,” Bevacqua told the media at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol on Wednesday. “Of course we took notice of the NBA’s decision, and we came out with a statement shortly thereafter … We’ll continue to be vocal about our opposition. We really hope it changes.”

There are active legal challenges to the bill’s constitutionality, so the courts could overturn it and let Bevacqua off the hook, but until then, he seemed satisfied that, because Quail Hollow is a private course not subject to HB2, the PGA can implement its own restroom policy.

No one is saying the decision here was an easy one. The PGA says its men’s major championship generates $100 million in economic impact, and it would have been a shame to take that from the city of Charlotte (whose city council passed the anti-discrimination law that prompted HB2 from the state in retaliation) and Quail Hollow (whose president John Harris told that he’s proud that his club boasts a history free of discrimination).

But by pretending that this is only about bathrooms, Bevacqua sidestepped the call for solidarity and diminished the civil rights struggle of LGBT citizens.

He didn’t get it. Silver did.

“The bathroom issue has become a little bit of a distraction,” Silver said in June. “From the very beginning, that was not the core issue. It was protection for the LGBT community in terms of economic rights, personal rights.”

According to James Druckman, a professor of political science at Northwestern University who studies sports, politics and public opinion, the NBA and the PGA of America made different decisions because both organizations likely made business decisions.

“The extent to which leagues allow or even embrace such political acts is variable and likely reflects the fan bases of the particular leagues,” Druckman said. “In the case of golf, my guess is that the perceived fan base was not one that would be troubled by keeping the tournament in North Carolina.”

He’s probably right. According to data collected by the sports marketing firm Opendorse in 2013, golf fans are overwhelmingly male, white and over the age of 55, while basketball fans are far more diverse. That might also explain how both leagues handled their respective Donald dilemmas.

When recordings emerged of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racists comments, Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life and asked the other owners to force him to sell the team. When golf course developer turned Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump employed racist rhetoric on the campaign trail, labeling Mexican immigrant “rapists” and calling for an outright ban on Muslim immigration, the PGA of America issued a joint statement with golf’s other governing bodies distancing itself from Trump’s politics but kept in place plans to hold the 2017 Senior PGA and 2022 PGA Championship at Trump-owned courses.

The PGA is clearly reluctant to “play politics,” but what about business? According to Sharon Holland, an American studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who focuses on human sexuality and LGBT issues, the two are linked.

“This isn’t about political correctness, it’s about ethics,” Holland said. “The PGA needs to think about the long historical arc of its lackluster response to HB2 and discrimination. One of the reasons young people aren’t joining traditional institutions is because they don’t understand why others are so averse to difference. That increasingly diverse world is a group of individuals that the PGA is going to inherit. What is the PGA going to say to them?”

Actually, we know what they’ll say. That “golf is a game for all.” That “this takes an investment and a commitment to enact real change.” That “the face of the game [should] become more reflective of the face of society.” And when those lofty goals are tested? That “we can only control so much.” That “we can’t control the policies … around the country.” That “we can only do what we can do.”

Until the association takes action when people or places or events contradict those supposed values, those words are just words, corporate doublespeak masquerading as corporate principles.

If the PGA of America really wants to “grow the game,” building a better future for the sport and its participants, maybe its leaders should think less about where golf is and more about where golf is going.