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October 31, 2008

Despite the so-called Tiger Effect, achieving diversity in golf remains an elusive goal

From: - Oct 31, 2008

by Dave Seanor, Golf Examiner

(Part 4 of a multi-part series.)

Durham, N.C. – Were he not such an easy-going guy, Tim O’Neal would take issue with the notion that Kevin Hall is the next-best African-American pro golfer behind Tiger Woods.

Instead, O’Neal’s performance through 36 holes of the First Stage Q-School tournament at Treyburn Country Club spoke for itself. He posted rounds of 71-72 compared to Hall’s 78-74, leaving O’Neal tied for ninth place. Hall, mired in 64th place, faced the daunting prospect of leapfrogging some 35 players in order to finish among the top 25 and advance to Second Stage.

Whatever the outcome, O’Neal can appreciate its significance. He turned professional in 1997, riding the tide of optimism spawned a year earlier by Woods’ sensational rookie campaign on the PGA Tour. O’Neal was on the first wave of a widely predicted influx of black talent into professional golf. But he has witnessed nothing of the sort.

“It is surprising,” he said over lunch after Round 2 at Treyburn. “It’s actually depressing.”

Indeed, Woods remains the only African-American on the PGA Tour and there are few black players in the pipeline. Moreover, the game’s power structure – from whom the golf industry takes its cues – remains overwhelmingly white.


* There are no African-Americans among executive decision-makers at the PGA Tour.
* Since he joined the PGA of America in 1997, Earnie Ellison has been the only African-American among senior management of the association that looks after the interests of club professionals. As director of business and community relations, Ellison oversees the PGA’s diversity programs. The organization has about 28,000 members; fewer than 300 are African-American. None of the executive directors of the 41 PGA Sections is African-American.
* There are no African-Americans among senior management at the U.S. Golf Association, and only three have ever served on its volunteer Executive Committee, which sets USGA policy.
* There are no African-American executive directors among more than 75 U.S.-based members of the International Association of Golf Administrators, an umbrella coalition of national, state, regional and local golf associations.
* There are no senior decision-makers in management at golf’s top equipment manufacturers: TaylorMade, Acushnet (Titleist, Cobra & FootJoy), Callaway, Nike, Ping and Cleveland.

The same year O’Neal turned pro, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announced to great fanfare the launch of The First Tee, a nationwide initiative to introduce golf and its “core values” to youngsters who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the game. The mission of The First Tee has evolved more toward the teaching of life skills than swing planes. It figures to produce more African-American golf consumers than championship golfers, although one probably will beget the other. But that will take time, as only about 25 percent of First Tee participants are black.

Joe Louis Barrow, the executive director of The First Tee, is arguably the highest profile African-American in golf management. Barrow is a former U.S. Commerce Department aide, former president of the golf bag manufacturer Izzo Systems, and the son of boxing champ Joe Louis. He tops a short list of black movers and shakers in golf that includes the PGA of America’s Ellison; Charles Schwab Cup tournament director Leon Gilmore; and Michigan State University golf coach Sam Puryear.

“I wouldn’t be forthright if I didn’t say it was disappointing that there is not greater diversity in golf,” Barrow says. “Certainly in what I would call the more controlled areas of golf, in terms of it’s much easier to recruit for positions in the management and administration of golf than it is to have someone compete at the highest levels of the professional game.”

Anyone destined for those highest levels almost certainly will have passed through the American Junior Golf Association. Based in Brazelton, Ga., the AJGA conducts more than 80 tournaments each year for boys and girls age 13-18. It is the feeder system to college golf. If a youngster hasn’t had success on the AJGA, he or she isn’t likely to get a whiff from college recruiters.

An accurate count doesn’t exist, but no one denies that African-Americans comprise a small minority of the AJGA’s 5,200 members. Participation by black kids, says AJGA executive director Stephen Hamblin, remains “fairly consistent. There’s a few.”

(The organization doesn’t request information on race or ethnicity from its members, a policy instituted long before 2003, when the AJGA adopted a performance-based entry system. Prior to that, participants were selected based on resumes they submitted. “We didn’t ask because we didn’t want anyone to claim bias,” Hamblin says. He concedes that gathering data on minority participation “may be something to think about” now that the selection process is bias-free.)

With few African-Americans coming out of the AJGA, it's hardly surprising that a Web search of the rosters of the 81 teams and 18 individuals selected to play in the 2008 NCAA Division I Golf Championship revealed 11 black players among the 877 listed. That number was skewed by the seven African-Americans on the roster of Jackson State University, a traditionally black college that was the 27th seed among 27 teams at the East Regional, where it finished last.

The most accomplished African-American player at the NCAAs, according to the Golfweek Sagarin College Rankings, was Vincent Johnson of Oregon State, ranked No. 475 nationally at the time. Johnson shot 81-73-74 and tied for 71st individually at the West Regional.

On the professional level, the best African-Americans beneath Woods appear to be Hall, O’Neal and George Bradford.

Hall, 26, shot to prominence as the deaf, African-American golfer at Ohio State who won the 2004 Big 10 individual championship. He has made a combined 16 starts on the PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour but more recently has been relegated to the Hooters Tour, where he triumphed in a 54-hole Winter Series event last January.

O’Neal, 36, has demonstrated resilience since turning pro after graduating from Jackson State in 1997. He knocked around the mini-tours for three seasons and would have earned a PGA Tour card at the 2000 Q-School finals had he not scored bogey, triple-bogey on the last two holes. So it was back to the mini-tours until Q-School of ’04, where O’Neal missed his PGA Tour card by one shot but secured fully exempt status onto the Nationwide Tour.

In four seasons on the Nationwide, O’Neal is a non-winner but has made 71 cuts in 129 starts and earned $423,630. He played only 13 tournaments in 2008, owing to reduced conditional status after finishing 100th on the previous season’s Nationwide money list.

University of Maryland alum Bradford, 34, has spent the last four seasons on the Canadian Tour, finishing fifth on this year’s money list ($62,405 in 15 starts) on the strength of four top-3 finishes. He’s been a three-time winner on a minor circuit called the Moonlight Tour. This week Bradford made it through First Stage of Q-School, shooting 5-under-par 283 at Spring, Texas, and tying for 18th.

None of this trio has accumulated any Official World Golf Ranking points in the last two years. Bradford is No. 576 in another world ranking of pro golfers, the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index; O’Neal is ranked 729th; Hall hasn’t played enough qualifying events to be ranked.

O’Neal believes there are plenty of talented black golfers, but they lack the financial support to continue their careers as professionals.

“Yes, there are more minorities playing,” he says, “but as far as minorities getting to the next level, that’s not happening. And I think it’s purely because they don’t have the (financial) backing to do it.

“There are guys who have the talent, but if you don’t have the money to play, it’s a dead end. It’s tough for everybody, no matter what color you are. It’s hard to go out there and play when you have to worry about your bills.”

O’Neal reckons it takes “a minimum of about $50,000 to $60,000 a year to pursue the dream free of money worries.

“I’ve been looking (for sponsors) all year and can’t find anybody,” he says. “I had to borrow money to play in Q-School this year.”

Add to that the hyper-competitiveness of golf in the Tiger Era. The prospect of making big money on the PGA Tour – 98 players have earned $1 million or more in prize money in 2008, and the Tour average is $995,265 – has attracted better athletes to the game. Starting as juniors, they’ve taken advantage of technological advances in equipment and training that have produced more sophisticated golfers across the competitive spectrum.

“When I came out of college, I didn’t know anything about the golf swing,” O’Neal says. “I’d just hit it, find it, and hit it again. The stuff I know now about the golf swing in general I wish I had known 10 years ago. Kids who come out of college nowadays, they’re good. They know what’s going on.”

That group would include less accomplished but no less motivated African-Americans such as Andy Walker, Joshua Wooding and Stephen Reed. Walker played on Pepperdine University’s 1997 NCAA Championship team. He finished 29th on the Canadian Tour’s 2008 Order of Merit (money list) and has three victories on the Gateway Tour to his credit. Walker played on the Nationwide Tour in 2002, making two cuts in 19 starts.

Wooding played for Southern California and is toiling on mini-tours in California and the southwest. He failed to make it through First Stage of Q-School last week in Beaumont, Calif., missing by three shots after scoring 8 over par 296. Reed, a former Texas A&M standout, is a mini-tour warrior, mostly on the Gateway Tour. He, too, missed out at First Stage, falling two shots short after scoring 1 over par 289 at Kingwood, Texas.

(With events mostly in Arizona, California and Florida, the Gateway Tour is similar in strength of field to the Hooters Tour, although its tournaments typically are 54 holes. The Florida-based Moonlight Tour is a modest collection of one- and two-day tournaments.)

No doubt the meltdown of the worldwide economy will impact the ability of PGA Tour aspirants to keep pursing their dream. It likely will slow the growth in general participation by African-Americans as measured in a 2003 study by the National Golf Foundation (the latest such study on record), which concluded there were 2.3 million African-Americans among 36.7 total golf participants in the United States (including juniors and “alternative participants” such as exclusive range users). More revealing was a breakdown that showed 1.3 million blacks among 26.2 million adult golfers and 552,000 blacks among 6.1 million junior golfers, meaning African-American golfers tend to be younger.

The study also bolsters O’Neal’s contention that golf can be cost-prohibitive. Correlating participation to household income, the study showed participation rates at incomes of $125,000 are roughly 25 percent for both whites and African-Americans. But at incomes of $75,000, the rate for whites is 20 percent and the rate for blacks is 12 percent. At incomes between $25,000 and $39,000, participation rates for whites are between 12 percent and 15 percent, compared to 3 percent and 6 percent for African-Americans.

As for the trends of increased overall participation by blacks and other minorities, The First Tee’s Barrow says the golf industry has been vexingly slow to capitalize on a significant demographic shift.

“(Non-golf) companies clearly have determined that if you want to expand your, quote, customer base, you should do so with those who are selling your product, managing your product, or administrating your product being more like the people you’re trying to reach,” Barrow says. “We don’t see that as consistently in golf as I think we should.

“I’d daresay that in the 16 years I’ve been in the golf industry, there has been little material change in terms of people from diverse backgrounds throughout the management and administration of golf.

“I’m not casting stones other than to say that it’s going to take a very concerted effort and a very committed effort over a period of time,” Barrow says. “And the sooner the industry chooses to do so, I think the better served the industry will be in the future.”

One way or another, Kevin Hall will have a stake in golf’s future. Optimistic by nature, he sees change on the horizon.

“Golf is kind of hanging around in the background, but all that is changing with what Tiger is doing for the game,” he says. “I think we’ll see more and more black golfers coming out in the future. There are programs encouraging that to happen, like The First Tee, all over the country. It’ll happen someday.”

Like O’Neal, Percy Hall worries that the expense of developing highly skilled golfers has stymied efforts by black players to reach the next level. “Finances have a lot to do with it,” he says. “It’s a lot of commitment. Especially for parents who have more than one kid.”

But the father is more jaundiced than the son, tacitly suggesting that golf is out of sync with a prevailing hip-hop culture among blacks, leaving young African-American athletes more attracted to the glitz of the NFL or NBA.

“Golf is not glamorous,” Percy Hall says. “I think a lot of African Americans play football or basketball because there’s a lot more people there to see you.

“And golf is a totally different kind of sport. You have to have the discipline and the passion, and there is nobody (on the golf course) to really share that with. It takes special people to play the sport. I think its really going to take some time (to meaningfully increase African-American participation).”

© 2008