The 81st edition of the US Masters has come and gone, with the world’s best golfers lining up to compete for the famous green jacket. A closer look at the field of 94 players, however, reveals a worrying aspect of the game that has not really changed since Tiger Woods’ explosion onto the golfing scene back in 1996.
Not one single player of African descent teed it up at Augusta National, 42 years after Lee Elder became the first black player to compete in the Masters in 1975. Since that date, only three more men of colour have graced the rolling hills of Bobby Jones’ East Georgia masterpiece – Jim Thorpe, Calvin Peete and then of course, Woods.
The Masters and Augusta is just a microcosm of a far greater problem in the game at the professional level. Woods and Harold Varner III are the only two black players who currently hold PGA Tour cards, but again, the problem runs deeper.
Golf does not just discriminate from an ethnic perspective. Both the PGA and European Tours are still bereft of players who come from underprivileged backgrounds, irrelevant of their colour, and the question must be asked, why?
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Is golf too expensive to take up?
There is certainly evidence to lend credence to this notion. Other team sports do not require anywhere near the kind of investment as the game of golf. With a starter set for a child coming in at a minimum of $100, parents who are struggling to put food on the table will obviously not be able to stretch to that kind of price.
Is there something that the major tours could do to make golf a more accessible sport for the masses? There are astronomical amounts of money currently involved in the game, generated through multi-million dollar sponsorship deals. Could there not be some kind of programme brought into action whereby youngsters from a disadvantaged background receive funding for equipment and the cost of tuition?
Something along the lines of a donation of one per cent of a tour member’s tournament earnings, from all of those who are inside the top 100 of the money list would seem feasible. That money could be injected into some kind of program which offers coaching and equipment to those who cannot otherwise afford it.
There is, of course, already a similar program in place.
The First Tee programme was founded in 1997, in the hope of providing an opportunity for children from less fortunate backgrounds to take up the game, and in turn, progress through to the highest level possible. The scheme has so far failed to yield any success, however, as far as bringing players through to the professional ranks is concerned, and it could be argued that a shake-up is required from top to bottom.
Is it just a case of golf being way down the agenda for youngsters these days?
The answer to the issue could, however, be rather more simple. Perhaps the youth of today, from deprived areas, are just more interested in other sports such as basketball, baseball and soccer.
There is still a certain stigmatism attached to golf, where it is perceived as an old man’s game, and that may well be something that never changes.
Is racism and discrimination still prevalent at some of the country’s most prestigious clubs?
This is obviously a more sensitive topic to broach, and one where there is no defining answer. There are, however, numerous examples of players of black ethnic origin being overlooked at some of the game’s greatest venues, as far as statues and tributes are concerned.
Take Augusta for example. There are bridges named after Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan. There are commemorative plaques dedicated to Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. But there is nothing in sight commending any achievements of black players. Surely Elder’s groundbreaking appearance in 1975 is worthy of some kind of remembrance.
As the game continues to grow in pretty much every area though, the stagnated attitude of those who govern it continues to linger in a bygone era. When Tiger blew away the field at Augusta National in 1997, a seismic shift in the game was both predicted and expected, yet it has not really happened. Sure there are more youngsters taking up the game than there were 20 years ago, but the demographics remain very much the same.
Maybe it’s time for our generation to step up, and actively look at ways to make the game one that not only appeals to the broader spectrum, but actually provides a platform from which those less fortunate could flourish.