Silence following Williams's racial insult shows how little golf has changed

Silence following Williams’s racial insult shows how little golf has changed

Steve Williams made a racial remark about Tiger Woods at a caddie awards ceremony in Shanghai.
Paul Childs/Zuma Press

A few years ago, a trio of Sports Illustrated staffers were invited to tee it up at a fancy golf club in Westchester County, N.Y. When the first two arrived, the club staff was gracious and welcoming, helping to situate these outsiders, both of whom happened to be white guys. The third SI staffer was African-American. He was dressed pretty much the same as his colleagues and drove a similarly utilitarian car. Upon his arrival, a club employee brusquely directed him to the caddie shack, assuming he was an itinerant looper. Eventually apologies were made and a conciliatory letter from the club president was sent around, but this episode has always underscored for me the casual and insidious racism that exists in too many corners of the golf world.

Steve Williams, famously fired by Tiger Woods, has now given this issue a very public airing. Earlier this week in Shanghai, site of the HSBC Champions, golf's professional caddies gathered for a boozy banquet at which they feted themselves. In a large room boasting players, reporters, tour officials and other golf dignitaries, Williams received an award for "Celebration of the Year," commemorating his over-the-top gloating in the wake of a victory by his new boss, Adam Scott. With a nod to Woods, Williams said from the dais, "It was my aim to shove it right up that black a——."

Twenty-one years ago the ugly Shoal Creek controversy was supposed to change the face of golf. The revelation that many of the country's top golf clubs had exclusionary membership practices based on race led to a period of painful self-examination for the sport. Woods turned pro five years after Shoal Creek and became a cross-cultural icon by exorcising a few of the game's ghosts with a transcendent victory at the 1997 Masters, a tournament co-founded by Clifford Roberts, who is reputed to have once said, "As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white and caddies will be black."

But how much has really changed since then? With Joseph Bramlett having lost his card, Woods remains the only African-American on Tour, and, as Williams made graphically clear, he is still defined by his blackness.

"He takes one word out of that sentence, and nothing gets said about it," Graeme McDowell said of Williams's incendiary remark.

But that one word means everything, largely because of golf's shameful history of racism. It took nearly three decades after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier for the first African-American to play in the Masters. The wounds are still raw. Pioneering black golfer Charlie Sifford never got to drive down Magnolia Lane to the old plantation house that is the Augusta National clubhouse; a couple of weeks ago Sifford, 89, told the Los Angeles Times," F— Augusta."

It says a lot about golf that in the wake of Williams's comment the sport's firmament has offered almost no critique. The HSBC is part of the PGA Tour's attempt to colonize Asia, and in the 24 hours after the Williams story broke there was not a peep about it on, nor did any Tour official weigh in. PGA Tour commissioner and European tour chief executive George O'Grady have since issued a statement. The takeaway is that Williams will go unpunished, spared even a symbolic slap on the wrist. (If he worked for a large corporation, Williams already would have been fired.) The messiness of real life doesn't fit with the Stepford image the PGA Tour tries to peddle to sponsors. Players like Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter refused to comment, while Adam Scott mouthed a version of the company line in saying, "I think everything in that room was all in good spirits and for a bit of fun. And I think [what Williams said] probably got taken out of that room in the wrong context."

More galling than the apologists are the deniers. When I raised the specter of Shoal Creek on Twitter, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger shot back: "Shoal Crk? Really? Your president is black! … Shoot a score, get on tour! What's race got to do with that?"

Like it or not, he's our president, and Barack Obama is also an enthusiastic golfer. Pretend for a minute that Obama was not a famous politician, but merely an anonymous graduate of Harvard Law. If he showed up at an exclusive country club, would he be directed to the pro shop or to Steve Williams's caddie shack?