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It’s symptomatic of the times in which we find ourselves that Dustin Johnson’s reign as Masters champion will last only 147 days (assuming he doesn’t repeat) while Shane Lowry has held the Claret Jug for 622 days, and will do so for at least another 106.
A Masters contested in its traditional calendar slot is a pleasing sign of normalcy, but it’s not just the dates, faces and golf course that will feel familiar this week. So too will the issue of race.
It was always going to be a subtext of this 85th Masters. In November, Augusta National Golf Club announced that Thursday’s opening ceremony will honor Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first African American to play in the Masters. The club also unveiled plans to fund a women’s golf program at Paine College, a historically Black university in Augusta. These are welcome efforts by Augusta National to reconcile its ignoble past, but the Georgia legislature has ensured that race will be less a subtle undercurrent this week than an ominous riptide.
Sport and politics is a fraught intersection, where people with no peripheral vision routinely express shock at being T-boned by views that conflict with their own. Thus folks who insisted the NFL ostracize Colin Kaepernick now rage that Major League Baseball had no business moving the All-Star Game to protest Georgia SB 202, a law that makes voting more difficult for minorities and grants Republican lawmakers excessive influence over the conduct of elections.
In the modern marketplace, consumers expect brands and organizations to earn their support by acting in a socially responsible manner. “Socially responsible” is an amphibological term that covers every imaginable scenario, whether supporting environmental sustainability or opposing racially motivated power grabs in state legislatures. Activists on both the left and right display an unquenchable thirst to punish those who don’t lend their money and might to what they have deemed the acceptable side of a divisive issue.
Calls for boycotts are commonplace, but not always common sense.
The PGA Tour and the PGA of America both face demands to cancel tournaments in Georgia and Chairman Fred Ridley will surely field questions about Augusta National’s stance during his annual pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday. And while there are many powers that reside within Ridley’s gift, redressing the feculent racism of Georgia politics isn’t among them. But nor shall it be his luxury to ignore it.
The Tour’s statement was unequivocal in its refusal to cancel September’s Tour Championship in Atlanta but also direct in addressing voter suppression.
“Our intention to stage an event in a particular market should not be construed as indifference to the current national conversation around voting rights. The PGA Tour fully supports efforts to protect the right of all Americans to vote and to eliminate any barriers that may prevent citizens’ voices from being heard and counted,” the statement read. “It is the foundation of our great country and a critical national priority to listen to the concerns about voter suppression — especially from communities of color that have been marginalized in the past — and work together to make voting easier for all citizens.”
That position aligns the Tour with Stacey Abrams, Georgia’s former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who argues that minorities are adversely impacted by boycotts that involve moving or canceling sporting events. The PGA of America, which plans to host the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club in June, also voiced support for voting rights and said it was “monitoring developments.” That wording reflects the existence of a title sponsor concerned with reputational damage and client reaction depending on what decision is made.
Only in a world of scorched earth, myopic absolutes — social media, in other words — could continuing with a golf event be construed as support for racist legislation. Opposition to Georgia’s appalling law should be pretty straightforward for people capable of walking upright, but appropriate responses to demonstrate that opposition are not always as simple.
Moving the All-Star Game is a bold gesture by MLB, but will it have a tangible impact on the core issue? Gestures only go so far.
Virtue-signaling and noble sentiments about access to the ballot box are just pointless pieties if the organizations issuing them opt for silence and inaction when both the moment and morality demand the opposite. Golf’s leaders have not opted for silence. Now, about that action part …
The men facing this dilemma — Ridley, Jay Monahan and Seth Waugh — are measured, lawyerly types and not prone to intemperate or hasty responses, even in charged circumstances. All three have signed on to a collaborative effort to make golf not only more inclusive as a sport but more socially responsive as an industry. And while this is a situation not of their making, it is nevertheless a test of that commitment. Their responses (or lack thereof) won’t be without consequences.
All three organizations — the PGA Tour, PGA of America and Augusta National — would doubtless prefer not to be involved in the quagmire of Georgia politics. But there is a potential signpost for next steps, and it lies in the wording of the Tour’s statement, which used the term “critical priority” to describe efforts to “work together to make voting easier for all citizens.”
Golf’s bodies could use their reach, resources and events to support voter registration drives and back initiatives that increase voter access. In short, to join with other organizations and proactively shore up the democratic process against any insidious effort to undermine it.
That should be an uncontroversial position to adopt in America, but of course, it won’t be. There will always be those eager to mount feverish, straw-man arguments against making it easier for minorities to participate in elections. That is not a constituency golf’s leaders ought to fear alienating.
Rather, it is one they should actively want to shed.
Opinion: Augusta National is unlikely host to social activists as sports world focuses on Georgia
PGA Tour: Despite new Georgia voting law, Tour Championship isn't moving
Civil rights group calls for PGA Tour, Masters to pull event from Augusta National in protest of Georgia's new voting law