Privilege of Play: Golf’s barriers include accessibility, cost, opportunity

“The Privilege of Play” is a Yahoo Sports series examining the barriers minority groups face in reaching elite levels of competition.

(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

The first Black man to play in the Masters was so worried for his safety that he rented two houses in Augusta, Georgia during the week of the tournament to throw off any pursuers.

One of golf’s most celebrated and flamboyant characters learned to play the game on the streets of Puerto Rico, using a guava tree branch as a club and a tin can as a “ball.”

A young player who just finished fifth in the U.S. Women’s Open is only here because of the astounding wartime sacrifices and bravery of her parents.

One of the greatest players the world has ever seen still had to suffer through racist mocking at the very site of his first major victory.

Golf is one of the world’s best-known sports, played on almost every continent. Its stars — well, one of them, at least — rank among the best-known celebrities on the planet. And yet the financial, systemic, cultural and environmental barriers to entry shunt untold thousands of potential players into other, more accessible sports.

The issue of race remains phenomenally touchy in the world of golf, so much so that many in the sport would rather simply avoid the question rather than address it. Multiple PGA Tour players either declined to speak or didn’t respond to a Yahoo Sports inquiry on diversity in the ranks of golf. The First Tee program also declined to speak, aside from providing statistics on the program’s reach.

High costs, a history of exclusion and a still-omnipresent reliance on private courses for its marquee tournaments make golf one of the toughest possible sports to crack. Even Tiger Woods couldn’t carve a wide path for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to follow in his wake.

There are signs, however, that the game is changing. And change is coming from some unexpected quarters. Ten years from now, the game should look very different … but missing that four-foot putt will still be as frustrating as ever.

Opening the clubhouse gates

Golf doesn’t have many rags-to-riches stories — journeys tend to be of the private-club-to-more-exclusive-private-club variety — but even if every player on Tour had scrabbled his or her way to the top, it’d be tough to beat Chi Chi Rodriguez’s story.

A child of a broken home, his father never made more than $18 a day as a dishwasher and farm worker. Rodriguez fell in love with golf by watching players at a nearby public course, and taught himself well enough that he was winning club championships in his teens. Always a prankster, he’s cast his hardscrabble life in mythic, comical terms.

UNITED STATES - JULY 14:  Chi Chi Rodriguez during the second round of the Ford Senior Players Championship held at TPC Michigan in Dearborn, Michigan, on July 14, 2006.  (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA)
Chi Chi Rodriguez is a rare rags-to-riches success story in the PGA world. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA)

He’s the most visible example of a player working his way up from virtually nothing, and 50 years later, he remains a rarity. Most professional-level players come from upper or middle-class families, learning the game at country clubs and college programs. Woods played on his father’s military-only course in California. Lydia Ko began learning under the tutelage of a coach in New Zealand at age 5. Rory McIlroy is the son of a scratch golfer, and began learning the game on Northern Ireland golf courses as a child. Every player has to start somewhere, but it helps an awful lot if it runs in the family.

One of golf’s most significant barriers is logistics: golf courses take up far more room than, say, basketball courts. The gentlest swing of any club in the bag except a putter would still be rising when it cleared the fence of a typical ballfield. Unless you’re willing to smack around a tin can with a branch — or you’re able to hang around a golf course — the simple task of just getting onto a course is an impossibly high wall.

To bridge the gap between desire and opportunity — or, in some cases, to introduce younger children to the game in the first place — organizations around the country have sprung up in recent years, most notably the PGA Tour’s First Tee program. Founded in 1997, First Tee is now nationwide, using golf skills and competitions to teach kids in schools and community groups.

“We see golf as a metaphor for life – a game with unexpected challenges and ups and downs that help build strengths beyond the technical skills to play the game,” the group’s mission statement reads. (First Tee officials declined to talk to Yahoo Sports for this story.) “Through introspective questions, interactive games, and immersive golf exercises, we design each lesson to help kids build a better understanding of themselves and empower them to strengthen the parts of them that they take to everything they do.”

At a more localized level, there are organizations like Detroit’s Midnight Golf, where high school students absorb life skills as they improve — or, in some cases, learn — the game of golf. Inspired by Midnight Basketball, where communities opened up gyms to allow at-risk youth to play basketball rather than roam the streets, Midnight Golf isn’t actually played at midnight. But since 2001 it has given the same sorts of opportunities for teens to learn about worlds they never would have known otherwise.

“That first year, they knocked door-to-door at public housing, offering golf lessons and free food,” says Clover McFadden, Midnight Golf’s communications director. “They thought golf was going to be a tough sell. So they were surprised to see everybody coming back every week.”

Created by Michigan social worker Renee Fluker, Midnight Golf arose as a result of Fluker’s son Jason Malone. A talented golfer, Malone played for the University of Detroit’s Jesuit High School and, later, Loyola University. He realized how much he’d learned from the game of golf — not just on-course etiquette, but skills applicable in all phases of life. So Fluker, in connection with the PGA of America, began coordinating what would become Midnight Golf.

In non-COVID years, the Michigan chapter of the PGA sent over pros to teach the kids, free of charge. Local mentors from the community taught them about outside topics like financial literacy, public speaking, creative writing, dining etiquette, mental health and other necessary skills. Classes comprise more than 100 kids, and every year ends with a trip to area colleges and golf courses.

“We’ve had over 3,500 students come through Midnight Golf,” McFadden says, “and we have a 100% high school graduation rate.”

The program teaches them to get familiar with golf on a broader level — not just how to play, but how to use golf as a networking and bonding tool, as well. At the new Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club, Midnight Golf members caddied in the pro-am tournament, worked as standard-bearers or production assistants, and learned the game from the inside.

Programs like First Tee and Midnight Golf help young players realize that the game exists, and give them the tools necessary to begin playing. But to go any further, you need cash. Lots of it.

Paying the cost

“My parents remind me all the time that I’m fortunate to be living in the United States and pursuing my dream,” Megan Khang says. “They help me keep everything in perspective. They remind me I can’t take anything for granted.”

As she talks, she’s practicing her chips the day before the U.S. Women’s Open begins. She’ll go on to finish in solo fifth place, just four strokes off the lead. Today, though, she’s talking about what it cost to get to this point.

“They definitely grew up different than me,” Khang says of her parents, and that’s putting it lightly. Her parents, Lee and Nou, escaped from Laos in 1975 by crossing the Mekong River into Thailand in the dark of night. Lee didn’t even pick up a golf club until he was 32, teaching first himself and then his only daughter how to play the game.

“My dad would take me to the golf course, and he’d say, if I kept the ball in the fairway, I’d get to drive the golf cart,” Khang recalls. “As long as we weren’t near the clubhouse.”

Khang accelerated through the ranks of junior golf, showing so much promise that her father quit his job as an auto mechanic to become her full-time coach — the only coach she’s ever had.

“Financially, that helped,” Khang says. “Every family goes through ups and downs. But we’re family. We’re stuck with each other.”

Together, the Khangs have navigated the incredibly expensive world of golf in a way many others simply can’t — or choose not to — afford. Every player, no matter what age, needs clubs, balls, gloves and shoes; for anything more than a hand-me-down or goodwill set, that’s several hundred dollars right there. Tack on greens fees for every single round, anywhere from $30 at municipal courses to well over $200 for higher-end private ones, and you can start to see the money siphoning away even if you’re a weekend hacker.

Since 2001, Midnight Golf has given the same sorts of opportunities for teens to learn about worlds they never would have known otherwise. (Courtesy of Midnight Golf)
Since 2001, Midnight Golf has given the same sorts of opportunities for teens to learn about worlds they never would have known otherwise. (Courtesy of Midnight Golf)

Beyond that, it’s nearly impossible to come up with any sort of definitive price menu for the costs of becoming a professional golfer, simply because the game will take everything you’re willing to pay, and more. Still, you can take a look at the menu and see how much you need to tap into the savings account.

Fixed costs are substantial and can add up quickly, particularly if you’re not playing well. Golf is a sing-for-your-supper sport; you can drop $2,000 on one tournament and come away with nothing if you don’t make the cut. And even if you do make the cut, it’s often not enough to cover basic expenses. So to earn enough money to chase your dreams, you need as many bites at the apple as you can get … and each bite costs money.

Equipment generally isn’t the issue; players good enough to make a go of it on a professional tour are good enough to get at least some form of sponsorship for clubs, shoes, balls and gloves. It’s everything else associated with the game that costs money.

Mini-tour players can play up to 30 tournaments a year; quite simply, if you’re not playing, you’re definitely not earning. So players who map out their budgets at the beginning of a season have to multiply every week’s costs by 30 … and then factor in the certainty that nothing ever stays within budget.

First, you’ve got to get to the tournament. Figure an average of $250 for plane tickets, $100 a night for hotel rooms, and $50 a day for food, depending on how many people travel with you, and you’re easily topping $1,000 a week before you’ve even swung a club.

Tournaments have entry fees ranging from around $200 up to about $800, depending on the event. In many cases, you’re playing in a one-day Monday qualifier, where it’s win-or-go-home. The larger qualifying events, which can propel you to the next level, have fees ranging from around $3,000 up to $6,000 — and there are four stages of those tournaments, meaning you need to pay those fees up to four times.

Then there’s the matter of your entourage. Most younger players can get a family member or friend to caddy for them, which saves them the $1,000-$2,000 per week (plus 5-10% of winnings) that a caddy usually earns.

Then there are the coaches, physiotherapists, psychologists and other on-demand professionals who can help up your game.

Tiger Woods and his coach Butch Harmon stand on the green during the Bay Hill Classic at the Bay Hill Lodge & G.C. in Orlando, Florida.
Tiger Woods and his coach Butch Harmon stand on the green during the Bay Hill Classic at the Bay Hill Lodge & G.C. in Orlando, Florida. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Butch Harmon, who taught Tiger Woods from 1993 to 2004 and Phil Mickelson from 2007 to 2015, charges a cool $1,500 an hour. His son Claude Harmon III, who just saw his pupil Dustin Johnson win the Masters, is a relative bargain at $450. A visit from Woods’ former swing consultant Chris Como will set you back $10,000 a day. The average rate a little further down Golf Digest’s “Top 50 Coaches” ranking is somewhere around $300 an hour, and it’ll take you a lot more than an hour to get good enough to play on a tour.

None of this includes the costs of just existing on the weeks you’re not playing: rent, food, insurance, cell phone, etc.

“Anything’s possible if you put your heart and your work ethic into it,” Khang says. “But you’ve got to make sure you want it.”

But what if you have everything in order in your game, and you get in the gates, and they don’t welcome you?

Fitting in

When Lee Elder began playing golf, the only avenue for him to turn pro was through a Blacks-only tour. The PGA, forerunner to today’s PGA Tour, had an explicit Caucasian-only clause. Elder played well enough to join the Tour once that clause was removed in 1961, and 14 years later, he earned an invitation to Augusta National to play in the Masters — the first Black man to do so.

Elder feared for his own safety so much that he rented out two houses in Augusta, and spent much of the time in the embrace of the historically Black Paine College. He missed the cut that week, but would return several times.

Two decades after Elder’s first visit, a Black man — Tiger Woods — didn’t just win the Masters, he dominated it. Woods’ 1997 debut was one of the most remarkable moments in sports history … but it also marked the start of a series of racist remarks targeting Woods that would continue for much of his career.

Issues of exclusion, often racially based, have dogged golf for most of its history. Whites-only clubs, the visual of Black caddies carrying clubs for White players, the overwhelmingly White roster of the PGA Tour even a quarter-century after Woods … it all adds up to a sport that, paradoxically, continues to struggle to reach minorities because for so long it hadn’t reached out to minorities.

Golf reveres its traditions, and justifiably; watching today’s players challenge the same courses as legends from the early 20th century is one of the sport’s true thrills. But tradition can also become constricting, handcuffing the sport at exactly the moment it needs to be changing to meet the future.

To Mariah Stackhouse, the LPGA’s only full-time Black golfer, that change starts at the local level. “Country clubs are what they are, with much stricter codes,” she says. “But semi- and public courses, they could relax, be a bit more accessible.”

Lee Elder (left), the last black player to win the US Masters poses with Tiger Woods of USA  during the 2000 Masters tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club.
Lee Elder (left), was the first Black player to play in the Masters. (David Cannon/Allsport)

Stackhouse points to dress codes as unnecessarily restrictive. She’s not advocating that clubs allow, say, flip-flops, torn jeans and bikini tops … but there’s a happy medium between that and the buttoned-down atmosphere of most golf courses.

“It’s incredibly expensive to buy a wardrobe for someone who’s not a competitive golfer, who’s just interested in playing nine holes,” she says. “You see a lot of people getting turned away and turned off. That game feels a little stuffy for me.”

She recommends courses that don’t have a familiarity with a broad range of cultures try to open their doors and their minds a bit. “If they’re not used to seeing Black and brown people come out [to the course],” she says, “they need to make sure their staff is culturally competent and not ‘othering’ the groups they’re not used to seeing out there.”

It’s no small irony that some of the more visible steps to move the game forward in recent years have come from the same place that embodied exclusion: Augusta National Golf Club. The home of the Masters has, in recent years, supported a range of initiatives to grow the game of golf, including amateur championships in Asia and Latin America. Two years ago, the club debuted the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship, a significant turnabout for a club that admitted its first female members only within the last decade.

Several weeks ago, the club took steps to right the wrongs suffered by Elder upon his first visit to Augusta, naming him an official starter for the 2021 Masters, and endowing golf scholarships and creating a women’s golf team in his name at Paine College.

“The courage and commitment of Lee Elder and other trailblazers like him inspired men and women of color to pursue their rightful opportunity to compete and follow their dreams,” Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said on the Monday before this year’s Masters. “But in reality, that opportunity is still elusive for many. We have a long way to go, and we can and we must do more.”

Tiger Woods is wrapping up his landmark career as one of only four full-time Black PGA Tour players. The LPGA, meanwhile, is 55% white across both its top-level and developmental tours, with another 31% of its constituency of Asian descent and 9% of Latina origin. Times are changing in golf, at every level, and the broad spectrum of players now making their way to the professional ranks is a testament to that.

“We cannot underestimate the motivating power of representation,” says Roberta Bowman, the LPGA’s chief brand & communications officer. “We’ve had Tiger Woods, and it doesn’t get grander than that. But representation happens at every level of the game. We’ve got to continue to build the pipeline, feed the pipeline, and normalize diversity in the game.”

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