Golf and Diversity – What’s the problem?

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, 80 sporting governing bodies in the UK released a statement acknowledging that they had not done enough to confront racism and make meaningful change. 

One of those signatories was England Golf, the sport’s governing body at the amateur level, whose latest figures from 2018 show that only 0.5% of recreational members at golf clubs are black. 

The professional game has a similarly sized problem with representation, with progression pathways described as “clearly unfair.” 

Lee Elder’s appearance as a ceremonial starter at the Masters in Augusta earlier this year stood as a late but nonetheless important recognition of the club and US golf’s historical racism.

Matt Foster (an intern at  at CNN International) investigates the causes behind the issue and speaks to the people trying to change it.

After nearly 25 years with an American black golfer standing head and shoulders above his nearest rivals and still no sign of a black British golfer yet to make their mark on the game.

Is it time for the UK authorities to further acknowledge their own shortcomings?

To get a sense of the role of BAME golfers in the British game, look no further the website of England Golf.

5 Best Golf Tips from Top PGA Tour Pros - Tiger Woods - thesocialgolfer.com 2

While their commitment to diversity is displayed by sub-sections relating to disability and the women’s game, there is no mention of ethnicity.

Likewise, the Royal and Ancient (R&A), the organisation responsible for the overall governance of the game of golf worldwide (except for the USA and Mexico where the PGA has jurisdiction) makes a similar omission.

Indeed, the R&A co-authored a 27-page report on European participation in golf in 2019 which failed to mention ethnic diversity once.

Karen Myers, the head of Corporate Communications at the R&A, attributes their exclusion to two main factors:

  • The ongoing research projects being carried out
  • The fact that the R&A itself doesn’t in fact have any current programmes relating to improving diversity.

Instead, the R&A donates considerable sums to separate organisations who are working to drive diverse participation.

The R&A is concerned that any immediate action could be misguided.

Myers says that “the worst thing we can do as a governing body is to assume and not to ask, that’s why we’re taking so much time to do research.”

The research referenced is threefold; 

  • The first element involves gaining a better understanding of the current makeups of club membership and understand the work being done by the clubs regarding inclusivity.
  • The second piece relates to the industry as a whole and identifying differences in perception what between people within golf want to do and people from ethnically diverse communities are asking for. 
  • Thirdly, the latest strand which is in the field at the moment is an investigation into why people from diverse backgrounds have rejected golf and what they see as the principal barriers to participation.

“I’ve been around long enough to know what ‘we need to do the research first’ means...- the research is not what is needed - it is much more the action that we need.”

Ray Nyabola, founder of the Black British Golfers Association (BBGA)

Ray Nyabola, founder of the Black British Golfers Association (BBGA) and established coach, is unmoved by the potential findings of this research: 

“I’ve been around long enough to know what ‘we need to do the research first’ means, the research is not what is needed- it is much more the action that we need.” 

The BBGA is a community intent on growing black representation in the game and highlighting the history of black golfers in Britain.

“The employment part and the participation part are inextricably linked”

Returning to the governing bodies’ websites, almost front and centre there are proudly displayed headshots of each organisation’s executive teams.

What is immediately notable is that all 17 senior management positions at the R&A are occupied by white British adults.

When asked about this, Myers, in part, credits such homogeneity to location…

 “The problem for us (The R&A) and England Golf, and this is no excuse, is geography. England Golf are based in Lincolnshire, while we’re based in the East Neuk of Fife”.

“If you don’t have an ethnically diverse local population around you to draw on then you need change the recruitment practices, particularly given that the pandemic has shown, that it’s no longer necessary to be based in an office in St Andrews.”

Myers also points to the game-wide shortage of BAME diversity as a contributor. 

This is likely the case for a lot of golfers around the country.

"If you don’t have an ethnically diverse local population around you to draw on then you need change the recruitment practices..."

Karen Myers, R&A
Black, Asian Golfers, Diversity, Racism

The R&A’s ALL white management team

She notes that “if you don’t play the sport or you’re not a fan of it, then you’re less likely to want to work in it…the employment part and the participation part are inextricably linked. 

Awareness of the issue in this country is limited – Myers herself admits that “while we have made positive strides in the wider diversity agenda, we are starting from a low base.”

While there are articles from British publications like BBC and the Guardian concerning black representation in golf, the vast majority of existing content relates to the American experience. 

This is a major bugbear of Nyabola…

“I’m sure there’s a narrative around black golf (in Britain) that exists, we just haven’t seen it. Everything that starts as a black British piece, then goes to American issues and never comes back.”

The narrative problem around black golf extends to the statistics published by England Golf.

Nyabola is unconvinced by the current methodology of relying on membership numbers from individual clubs:

“Depending on when you talk to me, I may not have a membership, but I’m still obviously participating in golf. I think (the existing number) misses the mark by a lot.”

Black, Asian Golfers, Diversity, Racism

Golf and Diversity – Is England Golf addressing the issue?

Jamie Blair, England Golf’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer, says that the introduction of the new World Handicap System (WHS) and subsequent ability to “communicate directly with members of the system would allow us [England Golf] to start measuring more accurately.”

The WHS is the new method of establishing handicap launched in November 2020. 

It is designed to welcome more players, make golf easier to understand and give all golfers a handicap which applies worldwide.

 Previously, there had been 6 different systems across 80 countries. 

The disparity between the figures currently produced by England Golf and the likely reality makes it difficult to gauge the true scale of the situation. 

Sport England have done perhaps the most comprehensive research into black participation in golf as part of their ‘Sport for all?’ report in January 2020. 

The report concluded that black adults were drastically underrepresented within the game of golf; 

  • Black British adults had just a 1.7% share of the total golfers playing despite having a 3.1% share of the total population. 
  • White British adults have a 98.1% share compared to being 82.3% of the total population. 
  • This inequity is the second worst of all sports and activities in the report, with only adventure sports having a lower share of black adult participants (1.3%). 
  • Compare this to football, where black adults have a 5.1% share of the participation base or track and field with 8.4%- the difference is clear to see.

This under-representation comes in spite of the fact that golf in Britain is numerically thriving for the first time since the glory years of the 1990s. 

Such growth comes as a real tonic for the authorities who have battled stagnation and decline for 15 years. 

The R&A, the organiser of the Open and international governor of the sport and its rules, released their 2020 participation report on May 25. 

The dossier shows a remarkable boom in the pandemic-plagued year: the number of players rose by 2.1 million to 5.2 million.

However, there is a glaring omission from the report and its analysis with regards to BAME communities’ participation. 

The concept of a handicap is unique to Golf.

It allows a rank amateur to step onto a course and play with a tour professional, on a level playing field. 

Such an inclusive model makes it more mystifying that the R&A’s report does not mention ethnic diversity. 

Again, Myers reasons that this is a result of the organisation wanting more accurate data before including the content.

The Black Hole - Golf And Diversity - thesocialgolfer

Has the Pandemic changed anything – what the golf Industry say about the issue?

There exists a loud scepticism amongst commentators that the sport will be able to maintain the boom in golf since the pandemic, now that more mainstream sports have returned.

Ian Mullins, Editor of the online golf club and golf society and popular blog The Social Golfer, is wary of the premature congratulatory tone of the report…

“They (golf’s authorities) will blow it. When football teams, rugby teams and cricket teams return, suddenly the courses won’t be full… let’s stop talking about how we’ve ‘cracked it’ and start talking about how you’re going to keep the new converts”.

He goes on to say, “I never cease to be underwhelmed by the quality, professionalism and expertise within the golf industry and to hear that the R&A don’t have a diversity policy in place, is shocking!”

Mullins’ opinion is shared by many around the golf world, not least some the biggest stars in the sport. 

At his pre-tournament press conference at the recent Phoenix Open, Rory McIlroy risked the wrath of the PGA by chastising the motivations, and need, for the multi-million dollar Distance Insights report published with the R&A.

The millions of dollars spent on the Distance Insights report, they should have been put back into the grassroots of the game. Golf is experiencing a boom, so we need more, younger people in the game, more minorities in the game – that’s how we keep the game going for the next hundred years… I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but it reeks of self-importance.”

That one of the most respected and famous voices on the tour is openly criticising the governing bodies’ stewardship is damning.

In response, Myers took the diplomatic line,“Everyone’s opinion is valid and we’re listening, but the thing about golf is that it is a balance between skill and technology. If it were only about the technology, then it would not be a sport anyone would be wanting to play, and it wouldn’t be inclusive at any level.”

But what does the new world handicap system have to do with Golf and Diversity?

"I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but it reeks of self-importance.””"

Roy McIlroy - Major Champion

Golf and Diversity – Accessibility is the key… 

Affordability and accessibility were principal factors in the participation stagnation which had plagued the sport until 2020. 

Golf as a sport is tied to privilege to a greater extent than most. 

Expensive equipment, green fees and prohibitively priced competition fees contribute to the barriers for amateurs trying to get into the game, as well as talented juniors looking to take the next step. 

While sports like football or rugby have an established pathway to success via academy systems, golf falls into a similar category as Formula 1.

e.g. unless you have willing and able parents or a generous benefactor, progression past a certain point becomes nigh on impossible.

“It’s clearly unfair. If you don’t have a financial backer or parents with deep pockets, at some point you have to give up,” says Nyabola.

“There’s only so many times you can play on the British Junior Golf Tour before you realise that there is no follow up. 

A really good golfer at junior level doesn’t have a clear pathway.”

Ryan Fricker is a high-level black golfer from Ivybridge in Devon who has played on the EuroPro Tour (one of the European Tour’s feeder programmes) on numerous occasions. 

He and his brother Leon were hugely successful as juniors despite struggling to keep up financially with their peers or get support from England Golf. As a result, they have had to look at alternate routes.

In Ryan’s case, reached the point of giving up playing professionally, in spite of the fact that he competed against the likes of Bryson DeChambeau during his time at the University of South Florida.

Indeed, Ryan had the lowest full tournament score at the 2015 American Athletic Conference Championship. When his University of South Florida team beat DeChambeau’s Southern Methodist University.

Nyabola attributes the stalling of Fricker’s career to the flaws in the progression system, noting that “at some point, the system was not able to identify these kids as prodigious talents and invest in them and back them – they made their own way, went to successful US college programmes but then fell into the abyss.”

"“I never cease to be underwhelmed by the quality, professionalism and expertise within the golf industry”"

Ian Mullins, Editor of The Social Golfer

Golf and Diversity – Building a pathway to inclusion…

Fricker himself, now 30 years old, is condemnatory in his assessment of the system: 

“Junior progression is very much influenced by the amount of funding that players have. “The ability to play different courses and competitive tournaments regularly is paramount to development”.

London Golf Show 2015

“My parents went to work every day, and all added up would have spent copious amounts of money on my brother and I, but if they had been wealthier, we would definitely have had more resources to improve.”…

Fricker is also wary of the processes by which juniors are chosen for England Golf’s elite programmes, and notes that missing out on the opportunities that come with selection have an enormous impact on the junior journey.

He commented further, saying:

“[selection] always seemed quite political to me, with a bias given to players from around Lincolnshire and London. England Golf do a good job with the top 10 in each age group but the players who don’t get selected this way have quite a different experience and don’t get nearly as much support – which can be frustrating when you take into account how fickle results in the sport can be. We need to cast the net wider and deeper, to source talent as successfully as possible”

Nyabola believes that the entire talent evaluation system needs refreshing: 

“There has to be an umbrella way of bringing all the talent in the country under one tent and then we do our job to make sure they succeed.”

“Football academies produce players, basketball academies produce players, what is the golf equivalent of that? We need to cast the net wider and deeper to source talent as successfully as possible.”

Concerningly, Fricker reflects that this imparity of progression is likely to get worse rather than better: 

The explosion of technology and expertise that has become available in the last 15 years: high level coaches that travel long distances, launch monitors, focus bands and stat programs all offer very streamlined and expensive ways to improve if an individual has access to them. 20 years ago, such tools weren’t available to anyone.”

The difficulties of breaking through in elitist sports like golf have been laid bare by some of their biggest names. 

Tiger Woods and Lewis Hamilton were two prodigious talents from a young age. Neither were embraced by the infrastructures in their sport and instead were reliant on their parents’ tutelage and resources throughout their respective rises- something that isn’t always possible for every emerging athlete. 

Hamilton recently castigated the increasingly exclusive nature of his sport, remarking in an interview with AS that “this sport has become a billionaire boys’ club. If I were to start over from a working-class family, it would be impossible for me to be here today. For inner city communities, golf courses aren’t on the doorstep”.

In regard to accessibility, golf has suffered from the decline in public funds over the last 15 years. 

Lethamhill Golf Course, Glasgow, The R&A - thesocialgolfer.com

Golf and Diversity – Is it a funding issue? 

Richard Holt, a sport historian from De Montfort University, has noted one of the core problems behind the poor BAME diversity of golf is that of the closure of municipal courses owned by councils: 

“When I moved to Leicester in 2006, there were three municipal courses in the city boundaries – now there is only one. For inner-city communities, golf courses aren’t on the doorstep.” 

Access being problematic for people of all ethnicities interested in golf again seems somewhat illogical given that there are 1872 golf courses in England alone. 

However, without these city courses existing, it becomes much harder for children and adults alike in inner cities to get into the sport.

One municipal course with a diverse membership base is Brent Valley Golf Club in West London. Richard Gray, the Welfare Officer at the club, says that “the number one factor is affordability. As a municipal course, we have an unusual cost system where the green fees aren’t automatically included which makes the joining fees very low.”

The R&A is looking to help with regards to the defunding of municipal courses. 

As a pilot project, they are planning to take over Lethamhill Golf Course, 3 miles north of Glasgow – previously Lethamhill had been a municipal course, but the council budget of 2020 meant that it had to be sold. 

Myers is hopeful that the plan can help drive and maintain the current participation upsurge:

We’re going to be running an inclusive, family-friendly golf facility where you don’t have to be a member or play 18 holes… if this works, it is a model we will replicate in other areas.”

Golf participation in the uk, The Social Golfer

Golf and Diversity – It’s about knowing your target audience…

Golf’s media imagery and the absence of black British role models in the sport add to the participatory problems.

Obviously, black role models in golf exist- Tiger Woods has been the foremost name in the game for almost 25 years now- but this hasn’t led to an influx of BAME professionals of all nationalities. 

Britain is yet to have a highly successful black player on the European or PGA Tour.

Imagery and advertising have been at the forefront of a lot of England Golf’s efforts to promote diversity within the sport. 

As part of their 2019 Get Into Golf campaign, an image was used which included a hipster-looking man with a trademark beard and lumberjack shirt and a black woman wearing a pink jacket.

Mullins who spend 25 years managing advertising campaigns for global brands including Emirates Airlines, Hitachi and Mizuno – as well as spending 5 years as Marketing Director of the London Golf Show – finds such images laughable.

“When the lumberjack shirt or pink leather jacket wearing millennials turn up at a club, he or she is more likely to be sent away with a book of rules on golf attire. There’s a clear disconnect. A classic case of tokenism and no concrete strategy being in place for the long term”.

In defence of the adverts, Blair of England Golf says that “these images are not necessarily for the clubs who wouldn’t want the people there – but this isn’t specifically for them… there is a need for us to show people who don’t come to the game naturally images that reflect themselves….image and perception are the biggest barriers to diverse participation in the UK”

Mullins argues “I don’t accept that at all, the lack of inclusion is the biggest barrier to participation!”

Historian Holt notes that the image of golf as a whole is prohibitive to BAME inclusion…

The reality is the image and idea of golf is white and middle class. Clearly, there is some unspoken racial discrimination, but I sense that the cultural distance and difference may be more important.”

The idea of cultural distance and perception being the central issue in golf’s battle with ethnic diversity has been backed up by statistics.

In July 2020, Sport Psychology Ltd collaborated with the Stephen Lawrence trust for a study that found that 92.4% of BAME participants rated golf as not inclusive at all or rarely welcoming.

Mullins thinks that the cause of this idea of golf being unwelcoming, stops with the governing bodies again…

“What have England Golf, the R&A or the PGA done to go into schools and explain that golf clubs and courses are a welcoming place to be for everyone? If they had done that 15 years ago, we would have a lot more top-level golfers of BAME descent. Golf’s governing bodies should hang their heads in shame.”

Golf and Diversity – Are ‘they’ doing anything?

England Golf has been attempting to remedy participation and imagery problems by borrowing from other sports and investing in community-centred approaches. 

During the pandemic, local cricket clubs around the country were able to fulfil the need for licensed outdoor spaces and become social hubs.

Blair notes that “even though people and their kids might be playing football, running and swimming and aren’t particularly interested in cricket, the clubs became a venue for socialising and became more of a community asset.”

He is keen to get golf clubs to try and replicate this by fostering relationships with varied establishments and driving both awareness of golf clubs and the general attendance. 

“If [clubs] can build a relationship with a funeral director for wakes, then they can go to mosques, to synagogues and the like… get people to come over and get to the club door. Let them experience the club that way and then nudge them about golf.”

The R&A’s drive to increase participation mostly goes through their donations to partner charity – The Golf Foundation.

The Golf Foundation work with under-18s from all backgrounds, taking simplified versions of the game to schools and community groups while teaching transferable life skills at the same time.

The Golf Foundation has indeed been successful in driving the take-up of golf and in particular girls’ golf.

One of the foundation’s main endeavours has been the HSBC sponsored Golf Roots programme, which is aiming to provide a first go at golf to two million young people in the next five years.

While these programmes are no doubt effective in getting young people into the game, there is no direct addressing of the BAME participation available on the website or indeed in their annual impact reports.

Thus contradicting the idea that the R&A’s BAME related initiatives largely take place through the foundation.

But It’s not all doom and gloom…

Nyabola has been working to establish relations and contact with the governing bodies.

For him, it’s not a question of being overtly critical but instead provocative and present in decision making conversations…

“We’re here, don’t overlook us and don’t ignore us.”

Having said that, there exists a caution to his tone when it comes to interacting with these authorities around the UK and the differing motivations.

“When it’s a project of passion for me, and I’m dealing with someone who sees it as a paycheck, the conversations don’t necessarily align.”

In terms of the practicalities of solutions, some of the ideas are noteworthy for their simplicity.

In Scotland, where schools end early on Friday afternoons.

Nyabola proposes that underused courses open their facilities to schoolchildren of all ethnicities and abilities every week at a subsidised cost.

This appears to be a win-win, with a possibility of long-term players of the game while also generating extra revenue for individual golf clubs.

Individual clubs have in some cases taken it upon themselves to provide the impetus for change.

At Brent Valley Golf Course, the club is currently crowdfunding for an academy initiative that looks to harness the diversity of the Brent area (the second most culturally diverse borough in the UK) and introduce golf to groups who otherwise may not find the game.

The initiative will give 16 bursaries to children from local schools, providing clubs, other necessary equipment, and a year of coaching.

The crowdfunding total will be matched by Ealing Council, subject to the outcome of the council’s decision meeting.

Brent Valley’s Welfare Officer Richard Gray was surprised by England Golf’s decision to not offer funding to the project,

“I think England Golf has prepared a lot of good resources and has been pushing the message to expand the diversity of people who play golf for the last two years, but when we contacted them about funding [for the initiative] they were unable to give us anything at all, which was a real disappointment and a big surprise as well.”

Nyabola exudes a contagious enthusiasm when speaking about his plans for the future…

“Getting black people to play golf isn’t difficult, it’s a problem I know I can fix in my lifetime. I can instantly have access to 200 kids that I know would love to start playing golf, but I need the commitment from the organisations that we’re actually going to be able to do something.”

Such positivity has been fuelled by encouragement from various sources since he founded the BBGA and the support he has received, informs his opinion that there is “a real drive and enthusiasm for change, the email account for our Facebook page is filled with golfers, both black and non-black, asking how they can help!”.

By Matt Foster