News & Opinion

Why is Black inclusion in the golf business so hard?

Earnie Ellison Jr. with golf group
Earnie Ellison Jr. (left), with a foursome from the 2014 Fellowship Open, a fundraiser in Milwaukee to support Black youths’ mentoring and education.

A former executive at the PGA of America gives his view of the golf industry and the opportunity in front of it

Sometimes, when I reflect on my 23 years as an advocate for inclusion within the golf industry, I ask myself, Why is inclusion so hard?

When I was invited to join the PGA of America management team in 1997, it was made very clear that the PGA of America and the golf industry needed to change and become more welcoming and inclusive of Black men and women. Oh, let me make one very important clarification. This conversation is about the inclusion of Black people, so the term “minorities,” which addresses a broader base of different groups of people and other characteristics, is not applicable here. Many diversity and inclusion efforts have shifted while the advancement of Black people receives less focus. However, I must confess, parity within all minority groups is nominal within the golf industry. Since Black men and women are lumped in the overall “minority” groupings, there’s a false impression that Black inclusion is improving. This is not to say that there have not been advancements for Black men and women, many of which I am proud, but there are only a handful of Black executives within key leadership positions within the $84 billion U.S. golf industry. Significantly more attention is required.

The reality is that Black men and women are playing and contributing to the golf economy, but that is not reflected in the hiring practices within the golf industry. Per a 2019 National Golf Foundation report, 3 percent of recreational golfers are Black. And when we focus on inclusion among positions on the boards of directors, presidents, chief executive officers and other C-suite positions – or even middle-management, sales and marketing, and suppliers – Black inclusion is nowhere near an appropriate representation. Black citizens make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to census figures from 2019.

Because of the lack of an across-the-industry analysis of Black employment in golf, we really don’t know where we are, but certainly a goal to be inclusive at the U.S. population level, while ambitious, is obtainable. I can assure you that by being more intentional with employment, utilizing Black-owned businesses, and community engagement, the number of Black recreational golfers also will increase. Blacks provide more support to a business when they see people who look like them in leadership positions and when they are benefiting personally and within their communities.

So, the questions to be answered are: Why such minimal change? Or, one question I shudder to ask: Are industry leaders unsure whether there is a need to be inclusive?

My career started at IBM when I was recruited from Alabama A&M University, a historically Black college, and within two years I was selected to participate in a financial management-assessment program that accelerated my career. It was a big moment for me. That program led to two international assignments and other management opportunities. IBM was intentional in developing me to become a key leader within the company. Truth be known, my place in the financial-management-assessment program also led to the PGA of America hiring me. The PGA’s chief operating officer was an ex-IBMer who referred to the list of graduates from this program, recognized my name and gave me a call.

While at PGA of America, I was one of the first executives within the golf industry to serve on the forefront of inclusionary efforts. We created initiatives to hire minority and female suppliers and spark new philanthropic and community engagement. I also led the efforts to connect the PGA to other historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, through the PGA Minority Collegiate Championship (the name later was changed to the PGA Works Collegiate Championship), which created a pathway for Black employment and PGA membership. Along the way, these strategic efforts and others helped the PGA boost its image as an inclusionary organization.

I would be remiss if I didn’t make reference to some notable HBCU alumni, including Rosalind Brewer, chief operating officer and group president of Starbucks; John W. Thompson, the chairman of Microsoft; plus, media personality Oprah Winfrey, actor Samuel L. Jackson, actress Taraji P. Henson, filmmaker Spike Lee, author Toni Morrison, Congressman James Clyburn and Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to be tapped for vice president on a major political-party ticket. I strongly suggest that golf executives consider becoming partners with our HBCUs to build a more diverse employment base and create strategic succession plans that will include Black men and women.

As I continue to make new contacts throughout the golf industry, I have many conversations with leaders, and those talks sometimes remind me of a civil-rights song released in 1964 by the late, great Sam Cooke called “A Change is Gonna Come.” I strongly believe that when a few key executives within the golf industry become extremely intentional to lead Black inclusion, we will have greater progress. They simply must make a point to hire more Black employees at all levels of their respective organizations and businesses. Whenever I’m invited to share ideas with golf leaders, it inevitably leads to suggestions and solutions that the executives had not previously considered – another example of how inclusion can generate new thoughts and results.

As Black employees enter the industry, new ideas, processes and entire methods of thinking will stem from it, and as a statistically proven fact, greater business success. Based on my experience and learnings, it will be extremely difficult for diversity and inclusion efforts to be successful if there is a failure to incorporate changes in policy and work culture at the top. And with the worldwide attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, it is even more imperative that golf executives seize this moment.

One final key dimension of Black inclusion is the relationships we have in and around our industry. It is pretty much understood that our community will rally around Black executives in leadership positions. We want to see each Black leader be successful. I certainly can attest to that fact. When I joined the PGA of America, even though I knew a lot of Black folks, when word got out that a Black man was in a leadership position at the PGA, my relationships multiplied. Black business executives and civic leaders from other industries lent their support to assure my success.

Today, many of those new friends will ask me, “What can I do to help diversify the business of golf?”

And I usually return to the same thought: When golf industry executives understand the true value of Black inclusion, “A Change is Gonna Come.” My passion for this movement is strong, and industry executives can count on me to help accelerate greater inclusion of Black men and Black women within the golf industry.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.