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PGA’s new president aims to make golf more accessible for everyone

Having risen through the ranks, the first woman to head the Professional Golfers Association of America prepares to break down the sport's exclusive barriers.

Then-PGA Vice President Suzy Whaley attends the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on August 12, 2018 in St Louis, Missouri. Whaley has since become the first woman to head the organization. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Then-PGA Vice President Suzy Whaley attends the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on August 12, 2018 in St Louis, Missouri. Whaley has since become the first woman to head the organization. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Golf — once the clubbiest sanctum of white male privilege in all of U.S. professional sports — is changing, becoming more diverse in its leadership and programming as it seeks to persuade more women and minorities to take up the game.

To that end, earlier this year the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) elected Suzy Whaley as its 41st president. It is the first time a woman has held that position. It comes nearly six decades after the world’s largest golf organization voted to remove its “Caucasian-only” rule from its bylaws.

In accepting the position, Whaley, who had previously held roles as vice president and secretary at the PGA, pledged to make diversity a key part of her administration.

“Together, we aim to invite everyone to join a game they can play for a lifetime, so our courses more closely resemble the communities we serve,” she said in a statement announcing her election to the top of the PGA. “I am grateful for the trust our Membership has placed in me, and I look forward to pursuing these opportunities with optimism, purpose and joy.”

That’s a bold promise, especially given golf’s culture, and its history of racial and gender exclusion.

Fact of the matter, it’s been a rare historical moment when women have competed in official PGA Tour events. (Yes, five women — including Whaley — have qualified and played in official tournaments with the men.) Going back to 1945, when Babe Didrikson Zaharias competed in seven PGA Tour events, three other women have competed with the men:

  • Shirley Spork played in the 1952 Northern California-Reno Open, finishing 105th.
  • Annika Sorenstam played in the 2002 PGA Tour event at Colonial on a sponsor invitational.
  • Whaley missed the cut at the 2003 Greater Hartford Open (now know as the Travelers Championship); she qualified by winning the 2002 Connecticut PGA Section Championship.
  • Michelle Wie has played in eight PGA Tour events, the most by any woman. In each event, she came on a sponsor exemption from 2004-2008 and she failed to make the cut in each event.

In a December 2017 article for Women’s Golf Content, Lauren Dicenso described the “circus-like atmosphere” surrounding the 2004 protest led by women’s rights activist Martha Burk that eventually led to women joining Augusta National, the traditional host course of the Masters Tournament. Dicenso wrote:

The media outnumbered the protesters. And the crowd included everyone from an Elvis impersonator, a drag queen and a Ku Klux Klan member. But, the long-term consequences concerning women’s rights are still being felt today and Burk knows that her activism in the 2004 controversy played a big part in pushing the conversation forward on those issues.

Racial controversy on the links, which still flares up unexpectedly from time to time, goes back further. While almost all of the major golf tour caddies were black up until the 1990s, black golfers weren’t allowed on the PGA Tour until 1975 when Lee Elder broke golf’s racial barrier, nearly two generations after Jackie Robinson did the same for Major League Baseball.

And, of course, there’s Tiger Woods, who won 14 Major tournaments and encouraged a generation of black players to set aside large orange basketballs for tiny, white and dimpled golf balls. But it’s easy to forget that even Woods felt the sting of racism during his ascension to golf’s highest heights.

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As Woods recollects in “The 1997 Masters: My Story,” his autobiographical remembrance of winning his first green jacket, he had hoped championship golf would displace racism in his life, but it didn’t. In Wood’s own words:

I’d also heard rumbles about black golfers not being welcome at the Masters. Everybody was writing about me being an African-American who was playing in his first Masters as a professional. I tried to make it clear that I was African-American on my dad’s side and Asian on my mom’s side, and that to think of me only as an African-American was to deny my mom’s heritage. At the 1995 U.S. Open, I had referred to myself as a Cablinasian, a made-up word that includes my Caucasian, black, and Asian heritage. I never thought it was right or fair to think of me only as an African-American, and I never will. But I had learned that to have one drop of black blood in you in America meant that you were considered an African-American.

Whaley has a huge job ahead of her in trying to chart a new cultural course for both the PGA and golf’s enduring exclusive image. Not the least of which is clarifying the distinction between the PGA of America and the pro golf tournaments bearing a similar identification. The PGA of America boasts 29,000 members, mostly professional golfers, instructors and course managers. The PGA of America is a separate organization from the PGA Tour, which is comprised of pro golfers who compete in some 120 officially recognized tournaments.

And as Karen Jacobs Robinson pointed out in a recent Dallas Morning News story, the PGA of America’s membership “remains stubbornly monochromatic…91 percent white and nearly 96 percent male.”

That has to change, Whaley said in an interview with the Dallas newspaper.

“Our goal in diversity and inclusion is really to evolve the game, to evolve our workforce and to really evolve our supply chains to mirror our community,” she said. “Certainly we have put programming in place over the course of the last 10 years to grow the base that we have.”

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In the grand scheme of American life, reforming golf’s clubhouses and putting greens fails to rise in importance among the nation’s most pressing issues. Golf, after all, is little more than a frustrating pastime for a relatively few, privileged people. But in a country that is obsessed with sports — and given the outsized role that golf plays among the most affluent and powerful among us — any racial or gender reformation within those private and powerful spaces counts as a victory and ought to be celebrated by us all.