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Golf needs to learn from its past and never stop moving forward for social justice

Tony Finau, Cameron Champ

It’s been a little more than four weeks since Golf Channel’s first telecast from Stamford, Connecticut. Maybe all the change – new headquarters, new co-workers, new shows – is influencing my judgment, but I can’t remember many individual months in golf over the last many years to be as eventful, especially off the course.

The fast and furious pace started with Mike Whan announcing on Jan. 6 that he will be stepping down as LPGA commissioner after 11 transformative years and concluded this weekend in a social media frenzy over Jordan Spieth’s contention and Brooks Koepka’s victory in Phoenix.

In between, the sport’s conversation has been dominated by a succession of blockbusters, from Tiger Woods’ fifth back procedure to Patrick Reed inflaming rules purists everywhere to Rory McIlroy’s harsh assessment of the USGA’s and R&A’s resumption of their potentially monumental Distance Insight Project. All of it happening as the professional game worldwide delicately manages its way through a pandemic.

But my lasting memory of this first month will be how golf dealt with being put where it has historically been most uncomfortable: under society’s microscope.

That focus began with the overrunning of the nation’s Capitol building, which occurred the same day as Whan’s announcement. Five days later, on Jan. 11, the PGA of America, which in 2014 signed to hold the 2022 PGA Championship at Trump Bedminster, defied the then-president and pulled out of the contract.

Said CEO Seth Waugh, “Our feeling was given the tragic events of Wednesday that we could no longer hold it at Bedminster. The damage could have been irreparable. The only real course of action was to leave.”

“Irreparable” might be too strong a word to apply to much of golf’s traditionally conservative audience. Not, however, if applied to the expanded audience the PGA and the rest of golf’s leading organizations are seeking, in the present and future. At a moment when the game is trying to demonstrate a greater social consciousness and more inclusivity, leaving was indeed the only choice.

An early warning was the largely negative reaction to Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player each accepting – on the day after the rioting – the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump in a private ceremony at the White House.

The decision’s divisiveness became clear when Player’s eldest son, Marc, publicly urged his father to decline. Sorenstam, in a Jan. 19 interview on Golf Channel, called the uprising at the Capitol, “a dark day in American history,” but stood by her decision, saying, “I’m not one to look back.”

Sorenstam should be credited for facing tough questions and acknowledging her critics. But in this moment, looking back is precisely what the golf MUST do.

In particular, it must continue to acknowledge its long history of allowing segregated private and even public courses; and of the PGA of America’s “Caucasian Only” rule, which until 1961 kept black players from qualifying for and competing on what would become the PGA Tour.

There is also the ongoing reality of far fewer black players on the PGA Tour compared to 40 years ago, the fact that blacks make up less than 1 percent of the more than 28,000 PGA of America club pros, and the dearth of blacks in influential positions throughout the golf industry.

For years, keeping the conspicuous lack of diversity off its public platform made it easier for golf’s leaders to remain stubbornly apolitical and avoid controversy, while tacitly warning its players not to speak out on social issues. The result has been a sport traditionally slow to reform.

But recent events, including some over the last month, indicate that a sport that can foster insulation and selfishness and as much as any other, is becoming more aware of social justice.

Last year, after the killing of George Floyd, three PGA Tour players of color - Cameron Champ, Harold Varner and Tony Finau – all spoke out thoughtfully and with deep emotion.

Most strikingly, PGA Tour Champions player Kirk Triplett, whose adopted teenage son is half African-American, last August placed a Black Lives Matters sticker on his golf bag while competing. “This message isn’t out here,” Triplett told Golfweek. “It’s in other sports. It’s in the NBA, it’s in MLS, it’s in the women’s soccer league, it’s in the WNBA. I don’t see it in golf, so I put it on there.”

In September, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan pledged $100 million to support racial and social justice causes over the next 10 years. Charles Howell III is offering performance-based bonuses on the Advocates Professional Golf Association Tour, a training ground for several black professionals.

In November, on the eve of the pandemic-delayed Masters, Augusta National announced that Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first Black man to play in the tournament, will join Jack Nicklaus and Player as an honorary starter this April. The club also endowed Payne College, a historically Black college in Augusta, with two scholarships in Elder’s name and will fund the creation of a woman’s golf team.

Last month, the Farmers Insurance Open gave an exemption to 27-year-old Black professional Kamaiu Johnson, the winner of the APGA year-end championship. When Johnson could not play because he tested positive for COVID-19, the exemption went to Advocates veteran Willie Mack III, who while at historically Black Bethune-Cookman University won 11 college tournaments. The 32-year-old also received the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption to the Genesis Invitational later this month. As for Johnson, he was extended exemptions in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am and the Honda Classic. Both became Farmers Insurance brand ambassadors last year.

Also last week, the PGA of America and NBC Universal announced that the PGA Works Collegiate Championship, which includes historically Black colleges, will receive expanded coverage on Golf Channel when it is played in May at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

All the apparent momentum justifiably comes with healthy skepticism. When Waugh said, “I hope that, in the coming years, golf looks a lot more like the world … so that the world can behave more like the values and beauty within our game,” there is little denying that golf itself, in matters of race in particular, failed to behave by those values.

But there are also more examples of golfers taking responsibility for bad social behavior. Howell became involved with the APGA after journalist Michael Williams, who is Black, counseled him that a Blackface anecdote Howell told at a corporate outing was demeaning and insulting.

Justin Thomas’ reaction to uttering an audible homophobic slur during the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Jan. 9 was one of genuine shame and contrition. He quickly lost his endorsement contract with Ralph Lauren Polo. But another sponsor, Citibank, after it considered terminating Thomas, stipulated that Thomas use “his platform to play an active role in accelerating support for the LGBTQ community and to increase awareness of the discrimination this community continues to face.” Thomas also agreed to donate a “meaningful portion” of his fee to LGBTQ organizations.

Over the next three weeks, Golf Channel is commemorating Black History Month daily with a Golf Films feature on the Black experience in the game. Created by a team led by producer Israel DeHerrera, the pieces are short and sweet and superb. Watch them to expand both your knowledge and your empathy.

May one month of increasing social awareness in golf lead to another. If the trend continues, the game and its leaders will justifiably become more comfortable under the microscope.