Twenty-five years ago, Tiger Woods strode onto the 18th green at the Augusta National Golf Club with a commanding lead to capture the first of his five green jackets. His inaugural Masters’ win was a watershed moment not just for the young golfer, but for the sport itself. Tiger was the first Black golfer to win the Masters and he did so at a club which had no minority members until seven years prior to his record-setting victory. The widely held belief was that the door would now be open for more Black golfers to step through and follow in Tiger’s footsteps—only that door is closed more today than it was before he walked up to the first tee at Augusta.
While a young Tiger was showing off his golf skills on national television, Black golfers were succeeding on the pro golf circuit. In the early 1980’s, Calvin Peete won 12 PGA titles, finished in the top five on the PGA Tour money list in 1982, 1983, and 1985, and banked more than $3.2 million career earnings. But Peete wasn’t the only African American force on the PGA Tour in his era. Other Black golfers winning PGA Tour events during that time included Lee Elder, James Dent, and Charlie Owens. Tiger’s 1997 victory should have been a continuation of that progress. Instead it stalled.
There are currently only four Black golfers with PGA Tour status: Woods, Harold Varner III, Cameron Champ, and Joseph Bramlett. That’s four out of around 260 Tour regulars or 0.015 percent. Champ has noted that for the game of golf to grow and “to see more minorities and people of color out here, something has to change.”
While greater steps must be taken at the local level to encourage more Black golfers, there’s no denying that this lack of diversity on the Tour is itself one of the barriers. When young Black athletes look at the NBA and the NFL, they see themselves on the playing field, which can serve as motivation to play basketball or football. The lack of representation on the PGA Tour resonates with young Black golfers who aspire to be on the tour.
The Tour has partnered with the Advocates Pro Golf Association (APGA) as part of its diversity efforts. The APGA is a nonprofit organization established in 2010 with the aim of bringing more diversity to the sport. Its APGA Tour is 70 percent Black golfers and has grown from a schedule of three tournaments to thirteen over the years. APGA golfers can be granted exemptions for PGA Tour events, but Founder and CEO Ken Bentley told Golf Digest that, “We need a real investment, not just something for PR’s sake. More than one-offs. If we really want to see these guys succeed, they need some type of rhythm. That’s how progress is brought.”
Handing out event exemptions will not solve the Tour’s diversity problem. It’s a half-hearted gesture that will not allow APGA players to develop their skills enough to join the tour and be successful. Case in point: no APGA player has earned his PGA Tour card which allows him to compete in Tour event and a chance to win the large tournament purses. Consistently offering event spots to multiple APGA players will allow them to hone their skills on a bigger stage and gain valuable experience all while advancing diversity in the sport on a consistent basis.
Everyone in America knows the name Jackie Robinson. Willie O’Ree, who broke the color barrier in the NHL in 1958, was inducted into the hockey hall of fame in 2018 and recently had his number retired by the Boston Bruins. Yet even die-hard sports fans likely don’t know the names of John Shippen, Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, and other Black golf pioneers who paved the way for the success of Tiger Woods.
Despite the recent efforts of the PGA Tour to sponsor recent events with their names, their accomplishments and legacy are late in recognition. The PGA Should take every effort to remedy this and do more to honor their courage, accomplishment and legacy.
As a non-profit organization, the PGA TOUR has projected revenues for this year to be $1.5 billion, giving the Tour a greater opportunity to support and promote the game as the grassroots level among minority golfers.
It is not enough to just announce an initiative or partnership, the words must be backed up with sustainable action. Ask most golfers if they’ve heard of the APGA and the answer is most likely no. The PGA Tour has an opportunity to not just take a knee in empathy but take a stance on writing a new future for those whose ancestors were long overlooked and forgotten. If the Korn Ferry Tour can earn exemptions for the top 25 earners, then why not the same for the APGA?
To open the door for racial progress in golf, the PGA Tour must start prioritizing diversity over dollars and equity over exclusion.
Desirée Walker is the co-founder of Black Golf Alliance, LLC.