Black Hole

Just over fifty years ago the sport of golf changed its rules to allow non-white players to take part. But now it’s whiter than the North Pole. Golf in America in 2015 looks like Jordan Spieth, not Tiger Woods. What happened?

This is an updated version of an article which first featured in the Popbitch Magazine in October 2014.

Seventeen years after Tiger Woods came to the world’s attention, winning the US Masters by a record-breaking 12 shots, the US golf team lined up against Europe at Gleneagles last weekend for the Ryder Cup. With Tiger missing with injury it was an American team that didn’t look much like America. Twelve white men lined up against Europe’s twelve white men. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Tiger’s emergence as one of the world’s greatest and highest paid athletes was supposed to usher in a new world of diversity in golf… at least, so all the conventional wisdom went. Instead – besides Tiger – there are no other black golfers in top-tier golf. Not one. America even has a black, golf-loving President. So what happened?


Can’t See The Woods for the Trees

December 30, 1975. Eldrick Tont Woods was born in California to an African-American father and Thai mother. Earlier that same year, Lee Elder became the first black golfer to play in the US Masters. Alongside Elder were Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe, three of America’s top golfers of the late 70s-early 80s era. They were following on from Mexican-American Lee Trevino, the only real rival to Jack Nicklaus’ dominance of the sport in the 70s.

Until 1961 the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) had a “Caucasians only” rule for its competitions, and while Elder played the 1975 Masters, it would be a full 15 years –1990 – before African-Americans could actually join the venerable Augusta golf club where the Masters is played.

“Supermex”, as Trevino was known, famously used to boycott the Masters. As he said at the time if he hadn’t qualified to play there the only way they’d let him on to the grounds was through the kitchen. Still, from 1964, when the first African-American golfers Charlie Sifford and Pete Brown broke through into the PGA and started to win tournaments, 23 tournaments were won by minority golfers.

And Then Along Came Tiger…

“No-one will turn their head when a black man walks to the tee after this. It could have more potential than Jackie Robinson breaking into baseball” – Lee Elder, on Tiger’s inaugural Masters win.

Tiger Woods wasn’t the first minority player in golf but he was the first to become the sport’s best competitor – probably the best it had ever seen. And perhaps the clearest way of explaining his emergence is to point out – as many have before – that he was an anomaly, not the shape of things to come.

He was playing golf with Bing Crosby on the TV as a toddler and getting coaching in media relations before he went to high school. By the time Tiger was eight-years-old he was a junior world golf champion, beating boys older than himself. He carried on winning pretty much every junior and amateur title going until he left school. College golf is a huge thing in American universities and everyone wanted him in their programme. He chose to accept a golf scholarship to Stanford, and within a year he was good enough to play in the major PGA tournaments. After two years he quit Stanford to turn professional. He moved away from California too, to Florida (as he didn’t like the higher tax rates in his home state).

Tiger turning professional was probably the biggest moment in golf that decade. He played his first shot as a professional in the Milwaukee Open in August 1996. Naturally, he got a birdie. Nike swooped in with a $40 million, five-year deal. At this point Nike Golf didn’t exist. They had no golf clothes and no equipment to sell, so this was a game changer for them too. Within a year Woods was the undisputed number one in golf. Within a decade Nike Golf was a $600 million business.

But for the first time the golfer courted by international brands, advertisers, TV networks – everyone – didn’t look like the usual country club golfer. According to Golf Digest, Woods’ first professional decade in the sport brought him $770 million, in prize money and endorsements. In 2009 he became the first sportsman – of any colour – to make a billion dollars. He is one of the most recognised celebrities in America, with more than 98% of people surveyed saying they knew who he was. (To put that into perspective, the third most recognised golfer is Rory McIlroy – who only 40% of people recognise.)

And yet 17 years after he broke out, things have got worse, not better. So how is it that the pioneering golfers of the 60s, 70s and 80s (like Elder, Trevino and Sifford) managed to break through to the top of a very white sport in an era that very much set out to make things difficult for them, but no-one can manage it now that golf’s biggest megastar is African-American?


It’s important to give some background to golf in America. It’s not just a sport, it’s the status symbol of white, conservative, suburban privilege. The fact that you need expensive clothes and equipment to be able to play. The fact that you need money to afford the fees, and the time – five or six hours – to play a proper 18-hole round. This is all part of its appeal to its core audience – and it’s also the root of golf’s main issue. The biggest hurdle to getting into golf is money. Unlike, say, basketball, it costs a lot of money just to be able to start playing the sport. The cost of a round of golf can set you back a small fortune. Even a basic, public course will set you back at least $30. A fancy course – more like $300.

So, most minorities are priced out of the sport before they even begin. Only 4% of recreational golfers are African-American. 80% are Caucasian. And despite our ‘modern’ attitudes, races still don’t mix socially that easily. Golf clubs – which tend to be rich, white and upper middle class – predominantly attract other rich, white upper middle class members.

There is not one private golf club in the whole of the States that has a primarily black membership. It’s such an elite sport that even President Obama found it difficult to get a game in the area he was staying in over Labour Day. The posh golf clubs didn’t want to inconvenience their rich membership. Not even to accommodate the President.

There used to be a fairly simple route into golf for talented kids without much money. Being a club caddie. Unless, like Lee Trevino you learned your craft in the Marines (or, like Lee Elder, you made your money from hustling) there was no other way in.

Each club had caddies to carry the bags for the rich white men playing the course. The caddies got trained, learned the courses, learned the game, played regularly and the best ones made it through and actually on to the tour. This can still be the case even now in places in South America. Current tour favourite Angel Cabrera rose through the caddie ranks in Buenos Aires to the PGA.

As Steve Sailer wrote in a great analysis of the decline of black caddying a decade ago, the absence of this route was immaterial to Woods appearance: “Woods, who has been a celebrated prodigy since he was extremely young, no more needed to get started by toting bags than Mozart needed to get started by moving pianos.

True as that may have been for Tiger, that was not true for others. And this route was stopped.

Human caddies got replaced with motorised golf carts. And as America moved further away from segregation, the trend for black servants to wait on white folk didn’t feel so good. What used to be a good job for black youths now looked like a way of keeping up the old southern traditions of servitude. Golf carts took away the need for that uncomfortable master-servant relationship.

The knock-on effect this had was simple and largely unaddressed. There was no access for poor kids to the sport.

There are some golf writers who think that edging out the black and the poor from the bastions of white privilege was something which golf club authorities were happy to see happen, but most say that what occurred was an unforeseeable consequence.

Tiger Woods noticed it early, “When I was younger, we had a few African-American players out here. That’s no longer the case. And I think it’s just that we don’t have the same caddie programs and, hence, don’t have the same access.” But he didn’t do anything to change it. Tiger hasn’t employed a black caddie since 1995.

According to the book His Father’s Son, author Tom Callahan claimed Earl Woods would have liked his son to have a black caddie but explained why he didn’t, saying “He’s a suburban kid“.

As prize money has grown, so the job of caddie to the professionals has become more desirable – as you get a percentage of the winner golfer’s purse. Now it’s more likely to go to someone who has just failed to make it as a professional, a college graduate. Even more likely, a lot of pros give the job to a family member (Ryder Cup breakout star Patrick Reed’s caddie is his wife). With a caddie picking up a six-figure sum over the course of the season, why would a player not want to keep that in the family?


Perhaps the fundamental problem is that people in golf don’t see there is a problem. They say the sport must be colourblind because qualification is made on a quantitative measure, not a qualitative one. It’s all about the numbers. Shoot the right number of shots over a round, a tournament, a season and you’ll make it. No-one is pre-selecting based on personal prejudice any more.

Which is admirable in theory, but the route to those numbers is no straightforward path. It’s increasingly hard to hit those numbers without incredible access to the golf world for years and years. It would take about $100,000 to kickstart a golf career, plus probably the same again every single year to play in the tournaments you need in order to get the chance to compete for the prized PGA card.

Without the dad who played golf, the years of membership to the top country club courses, the money to enter the elite junior tournaments, the best equipment… how do you even get a shot at making that shot? Well, you don’t.

The First Tee Foundation was set up to bring inner-city children into golf and, even here, the ethnic make-up isn’t geared towards the emergence of star black players. More than half of First Tee graduates are white. Only a small minority are black.

Tiger Woods set up a foundation too, but it doesn’t give golf scholarships.

Almost Famous

So what has happened to the black golfers trying to break through?

Tim O’Neal turned pro the same year as Tiger (but without the $25m Nike contract). O’Neal got to within one shot of qualifying for the PGA tour, but never any further – and it took the patronage of Will Smith to get him even there. Smith, who had just played a caddie in The Legend of Bagger Vance, sponsored O’Neal’s costs for three years. This sponsorship enabled him to hire Tiger’s swing coach, Butch Harmon, for a year. Imagine how good he might have been if he had more than a year’s elite coaching? Tim’s still trying to make it.

Vincent Johnson was picked up by Disney for their golf reality show, Big Break. They liked having a cool young black golfer as part of their mix. He thought it would help him catch the eye of an investor. It didn’t.

Joseph Bramlett was supposed to be the next Tiger Woods. Like Tiger, he is of mixed heritage and, like Tiger, he studied at Stanford University. He even made it on to US PGA tour, the only African-American golfer since Woods, but the pressure of being ‘the one’ obviously got too much. He only lasted one year.

Harold Varner III is currently the one Most Likely To. He’s on the tour (the tour from which the top 50 players are drafted up onto the PGA tour) but hasn’t made it yet. Varner started playing golf thanks to a cut-price summer membership of the municipal course near his home in North Carolina. He started helping out, cleaning clubs etc., and in return the club professional started giving him lessons.

In contrast, the sport’s current young star, Jordan Spieth (who is white), spent his youth playing at a country club, and by the time he turned pro already had huge sponsorship from Titleist.

This era’s thrusting sports clothing brand, Under Armour, zeroed in on this clean-cut Texan blond to try and help it break into the golf market, where only 20 years ago Nike had chosen the edgier, mixed-heritage Woods as its flag-bearer. Already ahead of Adidas as the US’s second biggest sports apparel brand, Under Armour’s founder this week acknowledged his gamble in backing Spieth had paid off. “Thanks to Jordan our company grew up today”, Kevin Plan told ESPN. “He’s the leading trending athlete in the world today.”

In a Forbes profile, when he turned professional just before his 20th birthday, Spieth was described as “humble, conservative and innocent”. Spieth acknowledged that one of the only thing he was doing away from the golf course was to understand investments and start a portfolio, adding “I’m as conservative as it gets”.

On top of these two sports sponsorships the 21 year old has deals in place with Rolex, NetJets (private aircrafts), AT&T, a sports supplements company and a digital agency, which netted him around $6million in 2014. Which was before he’d won his first major; before he’d even turned 21.

Is Diversity Inevitable?

It’s hard to think of another American sport that looks less diverse than it did 20 years ago. Basketball, football, major league baseball – what you see on the pitches looks like what you see when you look around America. Even tennis, a game almost wholly associated with country club privilege (just like golf) has done better. Following the Williams sisters are Sloane Stevens, now one of the top ten most marketable sports stars in the world, and Taylor Townsend, America’s first junior tennis champion in years.

But golf sponsors don’t seem to worry about this. It’s all about demographic targeting to them – and why would an advertiser pay to reach someone outside their target group? Golf is a game played and watched largely by high net worth males. As such, golf sponsors can target and tailor their goods to exactly the people they want. High-end cars, insurance, financial services, golf equipment. It’s a holy grail for advertisers. A global game where the fans have a lot of money to spend on exactly the kind of things that golf sponsors want to sell them.

The money involved in endorsements, therefore, is huge. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy – the top three golfers – even now top the charts for endorsement money in sport. Their deals dwarf the money made by the top three in every other American sport. Not in the NBA, the NFL, the MLB, tennis… Nowhere does sponsorship accrue to its leading lights more than in golf.

This is not without its troubles though. Golf is currently facing the same sort of problem as the Republican party. In seeking to concentrate on its core audience it’s alienating everyone else. The high-end insurance and financial services sponsors keeping the top level golf paved with gold might be happy with their demographic targeting at the moment, but what happens in the near future when the demographics change?

The World Golf Foundation has spotted this, its CEO saying, “White males have the slowest population growth and the highest golf participation rate. Latinos have the highest population growth and among the lowest participation rate in golf. It’s of deep concern to us.”

What Next

With golf in America drawing from such a narrow pool of talent, it’s struggling to compete with international players. In the Masters 2014, fewer than 50% of the top 20 finishers were American. The big names in golf are coming from overseas. Rory McIlroy is the one with Nike’s millions in the bag, a 21-year-old from Northern Ireland. The only really interesting new player in next year’s PGA tour is a Samoan-Tongan from Utah, Tony Finau. He also had to go on Disney’s Big Break TV show to make it.

Without Tiger at his peak, golf is sinking. It’s dying in the 18-34 demographic. It’s no longer a mainstream sport. Fewer people are playing fewer rounds and watching fewer tournaments on TV. Golf has lost at least 6 million players in the past decade or so and courses are closing over the country. In 2013 14 new golf courses were built, and 157 closed. In 1994 13% of American non-golfers thought the game was discriminatory. Now, twice as many think so.

Europe’s newspapers might have splashed the Ryder Cup all over the back pages and Sky might have created a whole Ryder Cup Channel, but in the States all the sports pages were devoted to the final match of baseball legend Derek Jeter. The Ryder Cup was just a small sidebar. Because golf doesn’t look like today’s America, Americans just don’t care about it.

Tiger Woods did change golf completely, but not in the way people expected. As his dad said, Tiger is suburban. He preferred white caddies. He dates white women. He likes golf. Compared to a sports star like LeBron, it’s easy to see why his appeal hasn’t necessarily crossed over to urban youth.

But by being so much better than everyone else, and by looking so different, Tiger gave the sport false hope, papered over the cracks. Prize money shot up, TV audiences discovered the game and sponsors flocked as he re-wrote the record books. Even recreational golf was on a high – 29 million people played it, with more minorities and women joining in than ever before.

But then came two crises. The economic collapse, and the Tiger Woods collapse. Following injury and his well-documented divorce and scandals, Tiger is no longer the draw he was. He can barely play these days. Trouble is, there’s nobody else to take his place. TV audiences are way, way down. If Tiger’s not playing, no-one cares.

So while his countrymen were getting beaten in the Ryder Cup, what was Tiger Woods doing? The golf legend was starting to prepare for life after golf, with the announcement he would be opening a restaurant. The Woods Jupiter: Sports and Dining Club is set to open in a year’s time, in Jupiter, Florida. Woods told the Palm Beach Post, “I envision a place where people can meet friends, watch sports on TV and enjoy a great meal. I wanted to build it locally where I live and where it could help support the community.

Jupiter, is a rich, northern suburb of Miami. While Florida has a population that is 16% African-American and 60% white, Jupiter is 83% white and only 1.5% African-American. What do those numbers remind you of…? It wouldn’t be golf, would it? Perhaps this is the real Tiger Woods legacy.