Golf Mythology: What the “Gentlemen’s Game” Tells Us about European American Culture (Part 2: Afternoon Shadows)
by Andres T. Tapia –
The quest for perfection, the joy of individualistic performance, the camaraderie through task-oriented ritual, and the low key expression of passion are four values of European American culture reflected in the game of golf. As I discussed in Part 1 of this article, because the game of golf is especially popular among corporate leaders, it offers a window into that community’s deeply held beliefs about what will help them survive, then thrive — a picture of the corporate community’s idealized self.
But every culture — like every person — has its dark side. I certainly have one, and so does the culture I come from. Catholics may refer to it as original sin, Jungians as our shadow side. It’s that part within each of us that falls short of our idealized selves, either because we simply don’t have the ability to live up to our own standards, or because ethnocentrism blinds us to the ramifications of certain behaviors we value.
In Part 1, I explored golf’s ideals, its aspirational declaration. But, like all cultures, “golf culture” also has its shadow side. That place where golf’s ideals of perfection, camaraderie, and passion don’t get fully realized conclusions — or conversely, may, in fact, get realized too fully.
As explored in-depth in my book, The Inclusion Paradox, inclusion requires not only that we learn and know more about others, but also that we actually start by trying to learn more about ourselves. What do we believe? Why do we believe it? How do these beliefs show up in both affirming and shadow behaviors? To answer these questions, there are two ways to get insight into our own culture:
- by traveling outside of it and experiencing cultures different than our own, and in that seeing our own from the outside, and
- by hearing the insights of those who travel to ours, which requires open listening: is it a distortion or is it true? Or more realistically, is there truth within the distortion?
Let’s go there with golf. As an outsider, here’s my subjective take.
GODS & DEMONS
While golf has its gods — the pantheon includes the likes of Palmer and Nicklaus and Mickelson — it also has its demons, and they are mostly about exclusion. Few recreational hobbies in the US exemplify historical exclusion as much as the golf country club. The PGA’s “Caucasian only” clause didn’t come off the books until 1961. Famed and still controversial Augusta National did not admit its first Black member until 1991. Since then it has admitted only one other one. Lee Elder, the first black to ever play the course in 1975 (pictured at left) received hate mail for months before his appearance there. He was warned to watch his step when he got to Augusta and that there would be blood.
There is also an accompanying history of exclusion toward Catholics, Jews, and women. Women remain excluded to this day; Augusta National has yet to admit its first female member.
Discrimination at private clubs hosting public tournaments came to the forefront when Hall Thompson, founder of Shoal Creek, then an exclusive, all-white club in Birmingham, Alabama and the site of the 1990 PGA Championship, proclaimed his club wouldn’t be pressured into accepting African-American members. “This is our home, and we pick and choose who we want,” Thompson told the Birmingham Post Herald. “We have the right to associate or not associate with whomever we choose.” This forced the PGA to declare that no PGA tournament would be played at a club that did not allow non-Caucasians.
This history is why Tiger Wood’s ascent – and now current descent — was and is loaded with meaning. How did this kid perfect his game, being black and Thai and not a member of the country club set? Could one really excel at a sport where one did not have the expected type of pedigree? The image of this mixed race player, with his dark skin and his blended African and Asian features strutting down the fairway, white caddy behind him – and winning! – forever bent the iconic golf images up to that point.
Cultures always react to difference, not only when it looks different, but especially when it behaves different. Tiger’s style is more expressive than many of his low-key counterparts. The photo on the right, hanging in a hallway at SPC Sawgrass, is of his sinking his winning shot for a legendary triumph on the course as an eighteen-year-old, making him the youngest player to win a major Championship at that time. His tendency to show rather than to repress emotion has led to scoldings by TV commentators. His presence has prompted awkward and even offensive off-the-cuff remarks, sometimes triggered, I believe, by unfamiliarity with dealing with differences rather than true bad intent. When Woods was on the verge of breaking yet another golf record, a Golf Channel telecast analyst suggested — after player Nick Faldo remarked that fellow pros would have to gang up on Woods to stop his victory march — that they “lynch him in a back alley.” The commentator was suspended for two weeks. Then Golfweek used an image of a noose on the cover to illustrate a story about the controversy, which led to the magazine editor losing his job.
The media and insiders whispered about Tiger’s expletive-laden outbursts of disappointment with himself. As long as he was winning, the wagging tongues were kept at bay. But now that he has been distracted from the game by a string of stories of infidelity, it’s clear that his god status was provisional. In communities of color, many who do not excuse his behavior believe that a white player committing the same transgressions would not have been as vilified as Tiger has been. Discuss.
While Tiger’s downfall centers on how he has used women, in some golf quarters women are simply invisible. Despite a 1997 article in the New York Times reporting on the progress women were making in challenging men-only club policies, it was just this year, 2010, that a United States District court in Boston found in favor of Elaine Joyce, a champion amateur golfer, who had made a federal case of being barred from playing in a 2007 men’s tournament at the Dennis Pines Golf course. The judge’s ruling set the precedent that government-financed tournaments should allow women to play with men at men’s tournaments and vice verse.
Throughout the golf world, complaints about female exclusion keep popping up like dandelions. Even now there is the ongoing controversy at high-profile Augusta National, site of golf’s premier Masters Tournament, which despite long running protest campaigns, still does not even have one woman member. Women also experience other inequities — fewer available tournaments, more narrow windows for tee times, even restricted access to club dining ro0ms. (For a detailed history of discrimination against women in golf clubs see “No Women (and Dogs) Allowed: A Comparative Analysis of Discriminating Private Golf Clubs in the United States, Ireland, and England.”)
Despite this retro situation, the gender story is not as publicly salient as the racial/ethnic one, even with the explosive growth of the LGPA (as in Ladies’PGA, as opposed to PGA, which needs no modifier to indicate who it’s for). We don”t have storylines of male and feamale dynamics of sharing the fairway in tournaments (with the relatively recent exception of Michelle Wei, which we’ll come back to). Much of the drama remains on the margins despite protest and dismay.
Ultimately the racial and the gender issues intersect. Despite Tiger’s place in history for breaking color barriers, he has regularly been criticized for choosing to play at Augusta while women continue to be excluded.
DIAMONDS & CLUBS
Despite the divine dimensions of golf culture we explored in Part 1, golf’s exclusionary practices still land it in the rough, even as changes slowly take place. Here economics plays a big role. Initiation fees can float within the $50,000 – $100,000 range. Yearly dues can cost $10,000 or more. For a full set of decent golf clubs, add $500. For a round of golf, $200. In effect, diamonds come before clubs. And there is no trump suit that can bypass that.
Sure, a growing number of budget-priced municipal golf courses have made the sport more accessible. But in business, systemic barriers remain. Power networking happens between the front and the back nine where the powerful play, and promises of deals and promotions are toasted at the clubhouse over scotch.
Women and minorities see and feel this as they watch the guys making plans for an afternoon of Fore! They know it’s not just about fun and games. It’s also about access and power. The role of golf culture in many organizations is a true barrier to full inclusion. While often unintended, the effect is that it reinforces structures that keep ceilings in place.
It’s a difficult truth to face. Clubs are self-aware of this, as evidenced by the survey findings for a USA Today report. While 86% of private and semi-private clubs provided their total number of members, only 26% of private clubs and 40% of semi-private clubs revealed their gender breakdowns. And despite 50% of private clubs having nondiscrimination policies, 19% refused to even answer the question, and only 5% divulged their racial breakdowns.
In the diversity business there is an adage among traditionally marginalized groups that we have to work twice as hard to get half as far — and that when mistakes are made, the cost is twice as great. While mulligans, do overs for an errant swing, are generally frowned upon, they seem to be more easily granted to members of the club. This is the cost for those left on the outside of the gates.
These afternoon shadows cast on golf’s manicured fairways stem in part from the logical extension of some of its valued behavior, such as the quest for perfection. It’s a lot easier to know what perfection looks like when all the golfer are homogenous. Diversity, in all its vibrancy, is messy and unpredictable, threatening golf’s self-image.
But all cultures face an identity crisis when newcomers show up. And every culture has to make a decision whether to keep things as they have always been and reject the newcomer, or whether to make adjustments while still remaining true to the roots of its ideals.
So how is golf responding? Can it, and is it, making room for those who have a different background but who feel attracted by the sport and by its ideals of the quest for perfection, the joy of individualistic performance, the camaraderie through task-oriented ritual, and the drive of low key passion? Can golf’s ideals remain the same and yet be interpreted differently by those who are different?
Change is Happening
In Part 1 I explored golf’s sunny side and here in Part 2 its shadow side. In the final Part 3 I will wrap up this serial blog post by exploring how golf is reponding to world changes in demographics, technology, and economics. Change is always difficult, even tumultuous. But openness to diversity — the new mix — and a willingness to make the mix work well — inclusion — brings new energy. It makes new things possible, it brings new people into the club, and can do so while continuing to affirm and even deepen the roots of tradition. In this case it can affirm the values that has made golf culture endure, while at the same time chase away the shadows of its exclusionary legacy.
Is there an emerging new us in the sport? Can golf become more inclusive? If so, how? Tiger is part of that picture. So is Sergio Garcia of Spain. So is Michelle Wei (pictured above), who not only was the first woman to compete in the all-male PGA, but is also Asian and young. How will they and others change the face and the culture of golf? Tune in next week.