At The Masters, golf starts to confront its racist history

In a year of political and social reckoning, golf as a sport has slowly begun to face up to the ills of its past 

Tiger Woods celebrates Masters victory - 11 years after last major title

A US Open champion walks onto the range at the Texas Open, hears a caddie discussing then-President Bill Clinton, and marches over with glee. “You mean that draft-dodging baby-killer?” he says, loud enough to raise a few laughs from his peers without breaking stride - or so the story goes. Golf has, after all, always aired a familiar political soundtrack - white, middle class, evangelically Christian and unashamedly conservative - ever since Richard Nixon told Augusta’s ailing, cigarette-twirling co-founder, Bobby Jones, that he was “the first Republican who left Georgia, went to Harvard and came back home still a Republican.”

Sympathies, then, to the world’s best golfers, who arrived in their former safe haven of Augusta, Georgia just as the state teetered into Democrat hands for the first time since 1992 - when it was won by Clinton no less. For all the scorn and controversy, Trump retains a large body of support amongst both golf’s silent and vocal majority. In June, its polarising new pioneer, Bryson DeChambeau, celebrated his US Open victory at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester, alongside the president’s son, Eric. Never to be understated, John Daly referred to Trump, a longtime friend, as “daddy” after attending the final debate, and predicted a landslide victory “cause he’s like me and Jesus, we love everyone.’’

Spare a thought for Jack Nicklaus, too, the most successful player in golf’s history, who waded bravely into the fray, imploring people to save America from a socialist enemy before peddling a conspiracy over the number of coronavirus-related deaths. “The hospital gets more money with Covid death than they do another death,” he doled. “I’m sure there’s been a lot of that.” It is easy to dismiss Nicklaus’s comments as the disingenuous ramblings of an 80-year-old man, but his slate could hardly be described as clean.

First, it is important to point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with golfers having a firm political allegiance. Taxes are, of course, the primary reason, even if when Sports Illustrated proposed that Hillary Clinton would offer to “cut your taxes in half and the Republican candidate would keep them the same” during the 2016 presidential race, the needle didn’t so much as flicker. “I wouldn’t vote for [Clinton] if she were the last person on Earth,” hooted one senior player.

The underlying problem, though, is that in golf’s not too distant past, particularly in southern country clubs like Augusta National, its right-wing tendencies have been unavoidably entwined with institutionalised and often overt racism. It was Nicklaus, after all, who reasoned that there were so few black professional golfers due to their “different muscles” in 1994. Touring in Vancouver at the time, Nicklaus added that he didn’t “buy” that stronger action could be taken to reduce discrimination. 

Augusta chairman Fred Ridley and Lee Elder, the first black professional to compete at The Masters

On Monday, Augusta’s chairman, Fred Ridley, announced that Lee Elder, the first black professional to compete in the Masters, would take part in the ceremonial tee-shot next April. Elder, now 86, was subjected to a torrent of abuse after qualifying for the tournament in 1975 and had to rent two houses, switching between each at random, to reduce fears over his safety.

Elder was not actually the first black golfer to qualify for the Masters, though. Charlie Sifford won two recognised PGA Tour events in the sixties, but was refused entry because “he didn’t meet the qualifications”. Augusta’s co-founder and then-chairman, Clifford Roberts, allegedly declared that “all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black,” in response to Sifford’s hopes of participating. “To my mind, the Masters was the worst redneck tournament in the country, run by people who openly discriminated against blacks,” Sifford wrote in his book, Just Let ME Play. “But somehow [the club] got away with it.”

It would be foolish to point the finger solely at Augusta. Like every evil, it has its figureheads, but is propped up by a presiding acceptance and deafening silence. “Every time I go to a major country club, I always feel it, always sense it,” said a young Tiger Woods. “People always staring at you: ‘What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.’” Around the same time, Woods’s father, Earl, began shouting abuse at his prodigious son to harden him against the racism he would inevitably face as a professional.

So for golf, a sport which once strolled through scandal with unimpeachable immunity, these past few months have provided an uncomfortable and belated reckoning. Ridley also announced that scholarships will be funded in Elder’s name at a nearby college in response to the “events of 2020” - namely the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in police custody in May. The PGA Tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, admitted that golf “needs to grow” and “become part of the solution” in a conversation with Harold Varner III, one of just three black players on its roster - a position that was echoed publicly by a wealth of its players.

They are only the preliminary steps, the most surface of processes sputtering into action, but they are at least material changes. Even the story of Charles Howell III, who last year admitted to ‘blacking up’ and pretending he was Tiger Woods during the latter’s public unravelling in 2009, evidenced how golfers are gradually becoming more aware of the entrenched issues they have inherited. Howell, a 20-year professional and Georgia native, is said to have undergone required racial sensitivity training, prompting a period of depression, further voluntary counselling, and has since made several efforts to aid minority golfers aiming to breakthrough professionally. The African-American journalist who confronted Howell after he told the Woods story at a sponsor’s event last year now accepts him as a friend, having seen the 41-year-old’s apology and awakening over the past year.

It’s not to say that racism still isn’t rife within the sport, but that while its politics and demographic remain largely unchanged, it is slowly beginning to face up to its past, rather than attempting to elide and revise it. Even as Trump has stoked racial tensions in an increasingly polarised country, the sport has stopped at the very least being complicit in its silence and in that, it has been unified. 

It was, allegedly, Tom Lehman, the former world No 1 of Brookline infamy, who derided Clinton on the range in San Antonio. Lehman was born in Minnesota, less than 100 miles from where George Floyd was killed. “I think everybody needs to understand that when you have an absolute disregard for the suffering or pain of somebody else or the death that you cause on somebody else, if you have no regard for that, you are a part of the problem," he said.

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