News & Opinion

Golf’s 21st-century name game: Clubs re-evaluate image

Golf clubs consider name change in wake of social unrest

In the wake of the recent national awakening, some golf-course properties with names that might conjure unsavory recollections of the past rethink their public perception

In a sign of the times, golf courses with sensitive, racially suggestive names are rethinking their public image and, where needed, changing the label on the front door. In these politically combustible times, with issues of racial injustice and systemic bias echoing through the halls of power, and with communities mobilizing in the name of Black Lives Matter to protest racially-tinged police violence, it’s no surprise that golf, like all sports and all aspects of modern culture, cannot hide from the tumult.

The trend is evident not only at golf properties with historic ties to overt segregation and the slave economy; even clubs with merely nominal affiliation as a “plantation” are finding themselves reconsidering their public image. In most cases, the name change is being done quietly, without fanfare.

What used to be called Reynolds Plantation in Oconee, Ga., changed to Reynolds Lake Oconee in 2015 when MetLife took ownership control. The onsite Ritz-Carlton changed its name as well to conform to the new identity. There was no public pressure to do so; the impetus came from within as an effort to modernize the image of the property and to make its resort and residential golf amenities more consistent with diversity and inclusiveness. It’s a decision that has at least as much to do with devising a progressive business image as it does with any historic revulsion to the legacy of slavery.

In Boise, Idaho, the new ownership group behind Plantation Country Club announced in late spring that it would be changing its name. That was just weeks after the slaying of George Floyd while in custody of the Minneapolis police. His death, along with other examples of racially-tinged police violence, ignited protests across the U.S.

Corporate brands such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s quickly were relabeled. NASCAR banned displays of the Confederate flag, and Mississippi dropped inclusion of the emblem on its state flag. Pubic pressure re-emerged on the National Football League team in Washington to change its name, which it ultimately agreed to do. A new name has yet to be disclosed.

Change, even when announced, takes a long time. Call that club in Boise and the staff still answers the phone “Plantation Country Club.” The logistics of a change can be daunting, entailing a lot of details and costly legal work. Papers of incorporation might have to be refiled. There are copyright issues with logos. New stationery has to be printed and distributed, along with collateral marketing material regarding membership and home sales. Websites need redesigning. Branded merchandise in the pro shop has to be cleared out.

In some cases, facilities do not want to make it look as if they are responding to overt public pressure, so they drag out the process. And sometimes, the resistance for change comes from within and a lot of detailed conversations are required before a decision to change is made.

Secession Golf Club in Beaufort, S.C., is among those clubs that have undergone an intensive internal reconsideration of its identity. There aren’t many U.S. clubs, after all, whose name invokes the breakup of the republic. Compounding matters are the club’s flag and logo. The logo portrays crossed flags: one of them a standard U.S. Union flag, the other a carefully stylized Confederate flag that never actually flew and that has been adapted slightly as to color and arrangement of stars – thus a version that never existed but that clearly has historic resonance. The club’s website has a page devoted to explaining how the flag is not really a celebration of the Confederacy and how the termsecession“represents an opportunity for our members to secede from the pressures of their everyday lives.”

Secession Golf Club, which has a diverse membership drawn from all over the U.S. and abroad, recently solicited its members about their attitudes toward the name and the logo. One anecdotal index of unease was that many members who sport the club’s crossed-flags logo on their clothing while on club grounds have been reluctant to wear that apparel at their home club or while traveling.

In a letter to the membership, club president Mike Gonzalez announced tweaks to the logo and flag – but no change to the club’s name. In what he calls “a compromise” rather than “a consensus,” given the divided nature of views represented by the more than 300 members who volunteered their opinions, Gonzalez announced that the club will be dropping the styled Confederate flag from its official public logo, replacing it with a South Carolina flag that will be crossed with the U.S. flag.

Secession members still will be able to buy the traditional logo on merchandise sold exclusively in the pro shop. The club’s name will remain. In other changes, the club is dropping the Civil War theme from its tee names – Grant, Lee, Stuart, Sherman and Jackson among them – and replacing them with names of modern personalities associated with the 30-year-old club. Civil War-themed hole names also are being abandoned.

Elsewhere in the Lowcountry, clubs have been abandoning references to “plantation” in their names and seeking other historically valid identifiers not immediately associated with a chattel economy. Wexford Plantation on Hilton Head Island is now known solely as Wexford.

The Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, Ga., 18 miles south of Savannah, announced a name change (Full disclosure: the author is an honorary member of the club). The club’s back nine along the Ogeechee River occupies ground that used to be the site of a rice plantation – thus the nature of historical sensitivity of the property. The old name has been so tinged with the slave experience as not to be salvageable. Internal discussion about a name change began a year ago, before the current wave of social unrest and public protest. “It was clear to us then,” general manager Mark Ray said, “that the wordplantationin our name was costing us business opportunities, partners and potential members.”

A new name remains undetermined. Following internal discussions with residents and members, the club is working with a marketing company to explore possibilities. Among some candidates for a relabeling are The Ford Sporting Community, The Ogeechee River Club, and Ford Sporting Club and Estate.

It’s a whole new ballgame out there. A new, younger generation of golfers and their families is more culturally sensitive to the need for historical propriety and respect. It’s not only members and residents who are expressing this concern. Staff members at every level also are weighing in.

When it comes to recruitment to all aspects of the game, image counts. So do names.

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