April 17, 2024

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The Masters tournament on the second weekend of April is the Rite of Spring for golfers in northern America. In places like Chicago, grass is finally turning green after the bleak winter, but the weather is usually still dire. So, golfers mostly stay home and watch the Masters on TV being broadcast from ethereally beautiful Augusta National in Georgia and make plans to play the next weekend themselves.

So, that’s a timely excuse for a column on golf.

The New York Times ran an op-ed titled “The Most Famous Golfer at the Masters Is Black. Why Aren’t There More Players Like Him?” by Peter May, who is promoting his book about the breaking of the Professional Golfers Association’s color line in 1961:

When the Masters Tournament commenced on Thursday, featuring 89 competitors, there was exactly one Black golfer in the field: the one we all know, Tiger Woods. Beyond that, the field for the 88th Masters didn’t look all that different from the previous 87.

That raises a good question: Where are the black golf stars? As The Onion headlined in 2012:

Golf Pretty Sure All Those Young Black Kids Inspired by Tiger Woods Should Have Arrived by Now

The obvious answer for why few blacks have followed the famously mixed-race Tiger into the upper ranks is that golf is a costly sport.

“Why has the number of black touring pros declined since a half century ago?”

Yet, there were nine top-level black touring pros in 1965 versus only two today (assuming that Tiger, who shot an 82 on Saturday, is effectively retired).

So why has the number of black touring pros declined since a half century ago? The answer explains a lot about changes in American society over my lifetime.

From 1961 to 1986 five blacks (Pete Brown, Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Calvin Peete, and Jim Thorpe) won a total of 23 PGA tour events. And more of the same generation later became winners on the Senior Tour for 50-and-overs, such as Jim Dent, Walter Morgan, and Charles Owens, who played cross-handed and introduced the long putter.

The early black golf stars tended to lead lives both inspiring and entertaining. For example, Elder, the first black to qualify for the Masters, was employed as a teenager by Titanic Thompson, America’s most legendary gambler, as his caddie and chauffeur as they hustled their way through the country clubs of the South. While negotiating the terms of the bet with a couple of overconfident local hotshots, Thompson would point to his liveried chauffeur polishing the limo and exclaim, “I bet you couldn’t even beat me if I was partnered with him, and he’s never even tried golf before.”

Since 1986, Woods has won 83 tournaments. But no other black triumphed on tour again until Cameron Champ in 2018. (By the way, Champ looks white, but he has a perfectly reasonable claim to membership in the African American community through his very black grandfather, who taught him golf.)

Champ and Harold Varner III of the Saudi-financed LIV golf league are the only black or part-black touring pros of note at present, but neither qualified for the Masters this year. While Masters champ Scottie Scheffler could well be golf’s next superstar, current golfers tend to be less consistent from year to year than in the days when Jack Nicklaus could win eighteen major championships from 1962 to 1986.

This is perhaps due to the increasing violence of the modern swing: Current club and ball technology entitles golfers to lash harder without losing control. But driving the ball over 300 yards takes its toll on the body, rather like how throwing close to 100 miles per hour puts contemporary baseball pitchers on the injured list more frequently than their predecessors. To young pitchers, the 257 (and counting) career wins of 41-year-old Justin Verlander must look as primordially monumental of a number as Cy Young’s 511 wins would seem to Verlander. Nobody who will be under age 30 on July 1, 2024, has at present more than 65 wins.

May goes on:

This is not what Charles Sifford envisioned when he and Stanley Mosk, the attorney general of California, fought to integrate the Professional Golfers’ Association of America.

The story of how the great Jewish liberal Mosk prevented the Jewish Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles from hosting the 1961 PGA Championship is indeed an interesting one. Jewish country clubs had been the venue of a number of U.S. Opens and PGA Championships before WWII, but they then shied away from volunteering to put on more after Mosk embarrassed Brentwood.

But the sheer existence of Jewish country clubs (even in today’s highly multiethnic Los Angeles, Brentwood’s membership remains 97 percent Jewish) is evidently too thought-provoking for The New York Times’ sensitive subscribers, so May prudently doesn’t mention it.

On the other hand, the integration of the PGA, shameful as it was to lag a decade and a half behind the end of the color line in baseball, still happened a full 63 years ago, so this history, intriguing as it is for its own sake, doesn’t seem all that relevant to the black lack on tour in 2024. But we live in an age of antiquarianism in which any and all shortcomings by blacks, even ones as benign as a failure to dominate professional golf, must be explained away by antiblack policies in the increasingly distant past.

May argues the need for quotas:

Until private country clubs, elite prep schools and Division I golf programs actively recruit and train Black golfers, Sifford’s legacy will remain unfulfilled, and the game will continue to be dominated by white players.

Yet, American golf in 2024 doesn’t seem exceptionally dominated by white players. Of the top 25 U.S. golfers this week following the Masters, 17 are white, two are East Asian (Collin Morikawa and Kurt Kitayama), two South Asian (Sahith Theegala and Akshay Bhatia), two are mixed race (Xander Schauffele is white and Asian, while Rickie Fowler is white, Asian, and American Indian), one is a Mormon Pacific Islander (Tony Finau), and Max Homa is a Persian Jew, who would presumably be classified as Middle Eastern and North African under the Biden administration’s new rules.

Asian-Americans are clearly overrepresented, especially South Asian-Americans, who have been almost invisible in American sports before. Golf is an expensive sport.

Perhaps more interesting than that none of the top U.S. golfers is black is that nobody is Hispanic, considering that Latinos now outnumber blacks by 40 percent. But few pundits are terribly interested in Hispanic representation.

The decline of black pros was forecasted way back in the late 1960s by Joe Dey, the first commissioner of the PGA Tour, who prophesied: “By the turn of the century, there may not be one black playing the tour.” Dey had a perfectly sensible reason for his prediction: Most black pros of his time started as caddies, but motorized golf carts were replacing human bag carriers. So, fewer blacks would get introduced to golf while young.

And, unlike in Dey’s time, you now pretty much have to start early these days to succeed at golf. The winningest black golfer before Tiger, Calvin Peete, grew up poor and didn’t play golf until his 20s, yet went on to win a dozen tournaments in his late 30s and early 40s. Similarly, a white peer of Peete’s, ten-time winner Larry Nelson, didn’t try golf until he came back from Vietnam at age 21. But that kind of late start seems inconceivable these days.

Consider how many team-sport superstars like Michael Jordan dream of retiring to the golf course and playing on the over-50 tour. But only the late 49ers quarterback John Brodie ever won a senior tour event.

Moreover, American culture became extremely hostile toward the idea of a black man serving a white man, even as a caddie. Thus, in the early 1980s the Masters dropped its requirement that tour pros use Augusta National’s local black caddies and instead could bring their regular caddies, who were increasingly white.

Because, it turns out that white guys love having servile jobs…as long as they are on beautiful golf courses. The typical tour caddie these days is often a fraternity brother or a college teammate of the player. The last time I had a caddie was at the National Golf Links of America in the Hamptons, where Duke U. students fly in for the weekend to tote bags for Masters of the Universe. The enthusiastic young men who unload your golf clubs from your trunk at the upscale daily fee course are likely upper-middle-class golf fanatics.

But Tiger Woods himself also probably played a sizable role in the lessening of chances for blacks in golf. I presume that Amy Chua’s coinage of “Tiger Mother” is a reference to the famous intensity of effort that Tiger’s parents put into preparing him to be a golf champion. That a part-Asian was trained from infancy to become the best golfer in the world—and in the dozen years from 1997 through 2008, Tiger was no doubt the best ever—had a galvanizing effect on Asian and other ambitious parents.

In the 27 years since the 21-year-old Woods’ twelve-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters, the level of parental investment in youth training has soared, which hasn’t helped blacks’ chances.


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