When Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997, many believed it could signal the beginning of a new era of diversity in professional golf. Woods was just one man on a tour that remained almost entirely white, but he quickly became such an exciting and inspiring athlete that it seemed only natural to expect that his own success might lead to more young black fans taking up the sport. While Woods was far from the first non-white athlete to succeed in golf, he was such a sensation that a Jackie Robinson-level impact didn’t seem to be out of the question.
Nearly 20 years later, there’s quite literally been no uptick in diversity on the PGA Tour. Looking at the most recent major tournament as an example, the 2015 PGA Championship was utterly lacking in non-white players factoring into the competition. Heading into the tournament, each of the betting favorites was white (including Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Zach Johnson, Dustin Johnson, and Rickie Fowler), and moving down the line there were no black players to be found aside from Tiger Woods – and even he missed the cut after the opening two rounds.
The issue of diversity was emphasized earlier in the season when an unknown competitor named Tim O’Neal gained entry to the U.S. Open. A black man who had once been recruited to play at Jackson State by the brother of Walter Payton, O’Neal was a 42-year-old first-timer at a major, and a rare example of a new black player joining the tour. The only problem was that O’Neal was already older than Tiger Woods – a nice story on his own, but almost the opposite of the story we’ve been waiting to see for two decades, of a young black golfer following the path Tiger Woods laid.
So why has the issue of golf’s lack of diversity been so persistent even in the era of Woods and after? That remains a little bit of a mystery, though there are some sensible theories. The first and most common is that golf remains a very exclusive sport and culture that retains some undertones of segregation. In the U.S. in particular, but also elsewhere in the world, golf has historically been dominated by white people, not just at the professional level but in clubs and school teams as well. It’s a well-documented issue that many of the best clubs and programs have often made it very difficult for non-white aspiring golfers to become members, which naturally works against diversity. Historically, it’s also been fair to suggest that even in more inclusive club environments fewer minority golfers have been able to afford memberships – though this is by no means true in all cases.
For his part, Woods sees a more specific issue at the heart of the problem: he blames the golf buggy (or cart). With carts now utilized at pretty much every level of golf, the need for caddies has all but disappeared at anything but the professional level, and this is keeping a lot of young people from getting the chance to learn and grow up with the game. Most every prominent black golfer in history started out as a caddy, so it’s hard to disagree with Woods when he suggests that the advent of the golf cart has thinned out the player pool.
Now the question becomes whether any of the potential issues just laid out can be fixed. The golf cart certainly isn’t going anywhere, so if Woods is correct in labeling this as one of the key problems, it’s difficult to imagine a solution. Where club memberships and racial acceptance are concerned, however, the PGA itself probably holds the keys to change. Just last fall the CEO of the PGA acknowledged not only the existence of a diversity issue but the fact that it places golf in a perilous position with fans moving forward. However, he seemed to miss the mark somewhat in articulating what the PGA could do about it. While pointing out that it’s “one of the fundamental tenets” of who the PGA are to keep their biggest events away from clubs that don’t have very open and inclusive membership rosters, he also admitted that the PGA does not seek to influence private clubs directly. It may be that this is what needs to change. While one would certainly hope in this day and age that clubs could make the appropriate changes on their own, pressure from the PGA might just be the only thing that could expedite the process.
Frankly, the current picture is pretty bleak for those hoping for more diversity on the PGA Tour. But at the very least the PGA seems to recognize the incentive to attempt to solve the problem.