Tiger changed the game, but its colour remains the same

Of the countless stories about Clifford Roberts, the southern banker who founded Augusta National Golf Club along with Bobby Jones and who was the club’s chairperson from 1931 to 1976, there is more than a ring of truth to one about his choosing to go on holiday to South Africa because he liked apartheid.

If so, Roberts might have found the world of professional golf in 2007 to his liking.

This week sees the 10th anniversary of Tiger Woods’s first Masters victory. It was a seminal moment and it will be celebrated as the dawn of a new and better era for the moribund sport.

Financially, the game has been transformed over the past decade. Sponsorship, television fees and prize money have all multiplied. Socially, however, the game has barely progressed.

If past experience is anything to go by, the galleries at Augusta this week will be noticeably short on black faces (in a corner of Georgia where the population is overwhelmingly African-American).

Spend any time on the driving ranges of the PGA Tour and what is striking is not how good the players are — as the tour’s advertising slogan would have it — but how white they are. Only Woods, whose father was African-American and whose mother is Thai, and Vijay Singh, a Fijian of Indian extraction, are black. Indeed, Woods was the last African-American to win his PGA Tour card. Back in 1996. It is the same story on the LPGA Tour, where there has been no full-time African-American player since 2000.

The recent influx of Asian golfers means there is a strong multicultural flavour to the European men’s tour but there is little cause for celebration.

Currently, there are no home players from an ethnic minority background playing on tour, nor is there much prospect of any coming through in the near future. Of the 60 teenagers in the English Golf Union’s ”elite” programme, only two are black according to Peter Mattsson, the union’s director of coaching. It is a similar story in the administrative levels of the game, where officials from an ethnic minority background are few and far between. Those who are employed in the sport are far removed from the centre of power. When the Guardian asked a Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) official last week how many ethnic minorities filled senior positions within the sport’s governing body, he replied: ”We have a couple of Chinese girls who work in the clubhouse.”

It is a depressing picture for those who want to see the game shake off its reputation as the last bastion of white, middle-class privilege, although some refuse to be disheartened, Woods included.

”My father said it would take 15 to 20 years to see the effects of what I did in 1997 come through. But there has been progress,” he says. ”The difficulty is, you need a bigger base of players. There is a weeding process — from junior golf, through to amateur golf, then to the mini-tours and then into the big tours. The more players you have, the better chance you have of minority golfers coming through. Right now we have more minorities in junior golf than ever before. They just need to make that step up into the professional game.”

It would be a brave soul who would tackle Woods on this issue, not least because the world number one has put his charitable fund’s money where his mouth is and spent $25-million on a learning centre for underprivileged children in California.

Yet when he was pressed to identify a promising player coming up through the ranks in the United States, he named his 16-year-old niece Cheyenne, who plays off a scratch handicap.

”She’s got an open line of communication to me. Anytime she wants to talk I’m there for her. It doesn’t have to be about golf,” he says.

Other aspirant players are not so fortunate and have to rely on more mundane sources of inspiration and guidance. In Britain it means that schemes such as the one run by Jaz Athwal of the United Kingdom Asian Golf Society and the Golf Foundation’s 300-plus school partnerships.

Both provide introductory courses in golf for schoolchildren. The latter scheme is spread across the country, while the former is largely confined to Bradford’s Asian community, partly through choice — ”I’m one guy and can only do so much,” says Athwal — and partly because of money.

The Golf Foundation will receive £600 000 from the R&A this year. Athwal gets nothing, although he did meet with R&A officials last year and was invited to appear on Open Championship Radio to discuss his ideas. ”I think we see our role as supporting the growth of the game at large and to be honest that means we can’t restrict ourselves to kids,” say Duncan Weir, the R&A official charged with distributing the annual profits from the Open.

”We want to support people of any race, gender and social background who want to try and have a go at golf. But I have to stress: we are as interested in attracting your next-door neighbour to golf as we are in attracting kids.”

Critics would suggest the R&A is duty-bound to tackle insidious racism in golf clubs that has kept ethnic minorities out of the game for decades. But then perhaps too much is expected from an organisation that, in 2007, refuses to have women members. Some might also argue that rather than a 65-year-old hacker from next door, what the game needs is fresh young talent if it wants to grow. For that to happen it needs role models such as Woods and the 16-year-old Kiran Matharu, who played on the British team in last year’s Curtis Cup. Matharu is recognised as Britain’s most promising young player, male or female, but even she had problems getting access to golf clubs because of her colour. Woods and Matharu overcame racism by sheer talent and force of personality. Others are not so skilled or as thick-skinned and they could be lost to the game.

”Tiger Woods has undoubtedly increased interest in the sport, and not just in the ethnic minorities. But I still worry,” says Peter Mattsson. ”Golf’s problem is that we still have to fight old views of what the game is and what it stands for. We certainly don’t reach out to the ethnic minorities the way we should, and that is especially true in those places where the game has been around for a long time, like this country.” – Â

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