News & Opinion

Shoal Creek revisited: Has golf changed?

Twenty-five years ago, during my brief “administration aberration,” a temporary detour from writing about the game, I was executive director of the Ontario Golf Association, now called Golf Ontario.  At a board meeting not long before my departure, I proposed that we publish contact information, including directions, for all member clubs.

“No way!” bellowed a ruddy-faced board member who belonged to a hoity-toity club in Toronto. “If we let them know how to get to [name of his club deleted], we’ll have busloads of those [racial slur deleted] at the gate!”

For historical context, remember that until 1990, a mere 28 years ago, Shoal Creek Club in Alabama refused to accept blacks as members. Echoing the bloated blowhard mentioned earlier, the founder of Shoal Creek, the late Hall Thompson, infamously said, “This is our home, and we pick and choose who we want.”

His words prompted the PGA of America to consider pulling that year’s PGA Championship from Shoal Creek. To avoid that, the club made a token gesture by granting the black mayor of Birmingham an honorary membership.

A lot appears to have changed in the quarter of a century since. It should be noted that at Golf Ontario’s recent annual general meeting, “diversity and inclusion” was a focal point of the agenda. Shoal Creek will host this week’s U.S. Women’s Open with players of many different ethnic and racial backgrounds (tee times).

But has anything really changed?

“We need to be a game for all of the people, not just rich white men,” said Kris Jonasson who runs the provincial golf association in British Columbia. That bigoted, florid fellow mentioned earlier must be rolling in his grave.

According to the 2018 Golf Industry Report released recently by the National Golf Foundation, the profile of the American golfer is changing. The study found that 24 percent of traditional on-course golfers are female, and 18 percent are non-Caucasian. Among off-course participants at facilities such as indoor simulators, practice ranges or Topgolf, the numbers reflect even more change: 41 percent female and 38 percent non-Caucasian.

Jonasson is a member of the Golf 2020 Diversity Task Force, headed by Michael Cooper, an adjunct professor at one of Springfield College’s remote campuses in Tampa, Fla. At the time of Shoal Creek, Cooper already had been an advocate of throwing open the doors of golf to those previously excluded. There was optimism in the air.

“We saw a lot of momentum in the ’90s,” he said in an interview with Morning Read. “The First Tee came to be, then Tigermania, and so on. I think that some felt that the problem was solved, that we were done. So, the movement just stopped.

“So, how many years later, here we are again. By no means has the situation been remedied. We are still wrestling with the same issues. It’s very frustrating that we are still having these same conversations.”

There are signs that optimism is once again rising, and this time with more justification. The current conversations have some serious voices this time around, and a lot of the credit should go to Steve Mona, the chief executive officer of the World Golf Foundation. In 2009, a year after he took the job, Mona unveiled the Golf 20/20 initiative, but it took a few more years before Cooper came on board.

His task force represents a cross-section of golf organizations, many of which have personnel and even departments focused on inclusion and diversity in a sport where, for centuries, the players were as white as the balls they played.

But Cooper refuses to single out his sport as the sole and worst offender in this regard. He also sees a golden opportunity for golf to take the lead in a new and better future for all concerned.

“Golf, and sports in general, are microcosms of the issues we have in society. I believe golf can be a shining example to everyone because it is a blend, a collage, a cross-section of society. Or, at least, it should be.”

To that end, he believes the core goal of his task force should be to function as a “linking agent” between traditional mainstream golf organizations and the unaffiliated clubs, leagues and organizations to open the lines of communication.

“There is so much more going on in minority golf than industry leaders ever realized,” he said.

Perhaps the best formalized summation of this open-minded approach comes from Golf Canada. In December, it unveiled its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Policy, the result of an industry-wide working group.

The preamble to the document says the association “embraces an environment where equity, diversity and inclusion are cultural norms and where all individuals, regardless of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, record of offences, marital status, family status, or disability, are respected and valued.”

Like Cooper, Golf Canada President Leslie Dunning sees the need for the golf establishment to reach out to everyone who plays the game.

“There is tremendous diversity among golfers, and there are numerous diverse groups that have organized themselves to play golf. We want to engage with these groups, learn what they are doing, how we might support them and what we might do together. 

“As we identify these groups, we will reach out to build relationships with them, helping us to understand their needs and interests.  It is our aim to create greater relevancy to more golfers and ensure welcoming environments for all.”

But, she cautioned, this will be an evolutionary change, not “just like turning on a light switch.”

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 30 years for the evolution.

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:  gordongolf@outlook.com;  Twitter: @gordongolf