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A simple answer, but a complex problem

11/15/2004

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Charlie Sifford, the first African-American to
play regularly on the PGA Tour, is now the first African-American in the
World Golf Hall of Fame.

Surely, his induction this week at St. Augustine, Fla., tells us how far
we have come from the days when pigmentation meant closed doors in golf
as it did in other areas of our society. But Sifford's induction is also
a reminder of how far we still have to go.

The fact that two of the top three male golfers in the world -- Vijay
Singh and Tiger Woods -- are men of color is compelling and, on the
surface, inspiring. But that inspiration is only skin deep. A glimpse
just a shade below the surface reveals a reality closer to despair than
hope. Simply put, 30 years ago there were 10 African-Americans with PGA
Tour cards. Today, there is one -- Tiger Woods.

If the color line was broken more than 40 years ago by Sifford, Pete
Brown and others why then are there fewer -- 90 percent fewer -- African-Americans playing professional golf today than there were in the
mid-1970s, more than a decade after the PGA Tour dropped its "Caucasian
Only" clause? Why, more than eight full seasons after Woods turned
professional, has no other African-American golfer earned a PGA Tour
card?

The answer is frighteningly simple and the solution is frustratingly
complex. The dilemma is not one of race as much as it is one of class.
Despite all efforts, and until recently those efforts have been dubious
at best, golf has become more expensive, more time consuming and less
welcoming of new players. It is a closed fraternity and the secret
handshake has been denied to most.

For a variety of reasons -- the dramatic dwindling of caddie programs
chief among them -- golf, perhaps more than ever, has slammed the door
shut on those of modest means. It will take more than Woods to re-open
that door. Thankfully, the golf industry -- through programs like The
First Tee, which brings the game to children not from country club
backgrounds, and Golf 20/20: Vision for the Future, a grow-the-game
initiative of the golf industry -- is taking steps to address the
problem.

What we have learned is that a role model like Tiger Woods is of limited
importance without an organized effort to exploit that popularity. If
the talent base of golf is to grow it will occur through a concerted
effort, not happenstance.

Why hasn't Woods had a more major impact on the growth of golf? Well,
the truth is that it is likely too early to tell what effect he has had
-- at least among male players. On the female side, where athletes reach
a physical peak at an earlier age, it is not a stretch to say that the
talent represented by teen sensations like Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer
and others are the tip of the Tiger iceberg. They were seven and 10
years old, respectively, when Woods turned pro. It could be that a similar
influx of male talent is a few years down the road.

But that expansion of the golf talent pool has been successful because
the game has been able to lure away talented middle class and upper
class athletes from other sports -- like soccer, baseball, basketball and
football. The game has not, however, had much success in terms of
reaching across economic lines to bring in kids from poor or working
class backgrounds. At least not yet.

If the greatest skier in the world were an African-American it is highly
unlikely that it would lead to an explosion in the number of black
skiers. The fact is that most African-Americans don't live near
mountains. The fact is also that kids of modest means have had the golf
mountain moved farther away from them. Some of the game's greatest
players -- Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and African-American
players like Sifford, Lee Elder and Calvin Peete -- had their first
exposure to golf through being caddies. But because carts generate
hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for courses each year,
caddies have become an endangered species. As a result, talented
athletes from financially challenged backgrounds have been locked out of
the game -- both black and white. They can't get to the mountain so golf
has to bring the mountain to them.

The First Tee, the initiative started by the World Golf Foundation in
1997, has to date reached 395,000 children in its mission to provide
affordable, accessible facilities for every kid who wants to play the
game. Currently, 178 First Tee facilities exist nationwide. The game has
also been taken into the schools though the National School Golf
Program, an initiative of the First Tee, which has reached 50,000 boys
and girls through 130 elementary schools. The idea is simple: Expose
children to the game of golf and its positive life skills -- honesty,
discipline, playing by the rules -- and then make certain that every
child who expresses an interest in playing the game has that
opportunity.

When Tiger turned professional in 1996 he said he wanted to make golf
look like America. Eight years later the PGA Tour looks more like the
America of 1954 than it does of 2004. Golf 20/20 was founded five years
ago with the goal to add 20 million new golfers by the year 2020. Early
efforts were sabotaged by the fact that the industry was obsessed with
trying to grow the game by expanding its core market -- basically white
men who play a lot of golf already -- rather than trying to reach out to
new golfers. Thankfully, that corner has been turned. This year's
conference at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla., displayed a
much stronger interest in making golf look like America. Minorities,
children and women were targeted as growth areas for the game.

Charlie Sifford's PGA Tour record does not qualify him for the World
Golf Hall of Fame, but the uphill fight he fought against bigotry and
ignorance does. We should never forget that there was a time when skin
color closed doors and we should never forget that this is still a time
in which privilege begets privilege and that there are many children out
there with a ton of talent in all fields who simply need to be given the
opportunity to succeed. Golf is but a small corner of the world, but it
is the corner of the world in which we function and the world is changed
by first changing your own neighborhood. Making golf look like America
by increasing the numbers of minorities and women in the game will help
make America a better place.

Charlie Sifford would likely rather be remembered as a player but his
importance is as a pioneer. He taught us right from wrong, now we have
to build on those lessons.


Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine.

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