In the East Room of the White House on November 24th, President Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the neck of 92-year-old Charlie Sifford. A moment loaded with symbolism, the first African-American president awarding the nation's highest civilian accolade to the first African-American to earn a PGA Tour card served as a timely reminder of the long-ago battle Sifford and others waged to desegregate golf.
"History was made last night by my grandpa," wrote Tiger Woods of what the ceremony meant to him. "Thanks Charlie for inspiring Pop, who then in turn inspired me and others like us. Heroic fight & you won."
The late Earl Woods ensured that Tiger grew up always appreciating that Sifford was essentially golf's Jackie Robinson, the man who did most to break down the sport's colour barrier and to force the PGA Tour to remove its "Caucasian-only" clause in 1961. In an era before roped-off fairways, spectators were prone to kicking Sifford's ball into the rough and showering him with racial epithets. At the Greensboro Open in North Carolina once, he stayed in a university dorm because most hotels in the city remained steadfastly whites-only, and competed with a death threat hanging over him.
Against that background, there's an obvious temptation to view Sifford becoming just the third golfer (after Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer) to be honoured by a president in this way as some sort of convenient closing of the circle. To do so would be wrong. There may no longer be a regulation specifically designed to keep people of certain races from turning pro, and, unlike Sifford, no contemporary golfer will fail to qualify for the Masters because organisers appear to object to his skin colour. Yet serious problems remain.
Fewer black professionals
Nearly two decades after Tiger Woods began his epic assault on the record books, there are fewer black professionals playing today than there were in the mid-1970s. Between 1964 and 1986,
and Sifford won 23 tournaments on the American tour. Since Thorpe’s triumph at the Seiko-Tucson Matchplay in 1986, Woods is the only player of African-American extraction (he famously describes his mixed-race heritage as Caublinasian) to lift a trophy, or, in his case, 79 of them.
It wasn't meant to be like this. Even before Woods was fitted for his first green jacket, Nike unveiled a memorable commercial in which boys and girls of all ethnicities and colours swung clubs with varying degrees of fluency and announced: "I'm Tiger Woods." Here was a golfer, the marketing implied, set to transform the way the sport was perceived by kids and cause the most diverse generation ever to take to the fairways to try to emulate his wondrous feats. How wrong they were.
"Golf pretty sure all those young black kids inspired by Tiger Woods should have arrived by now," went a razor-sharp headline in satirical newspaper the Onion.
At the US Open in Pinehurst last summer, there wasn't a single African-American competitor in a field of 156. But it's like that at most events when Woods doesn't play or a sponsor hasn't issued an invite to Tim O'Neal or Joseph Bramlett, two African-American journeymen who have spent most of their careers knocking around the minor tours.
At junior tournaments, it’s not unusual to be able to count the number of African-American kids on one hand either. At college level, a similar story. Many coaches say that when they travel the country scouting potential high school recruits, black players almost never come up on the radar. All of the initial hyperbole surrounding Woods firing the imaginations of children ignored the salient fact that golf remains a rather expensive sport to play.
Almost every kid in America can source a basketball and an empty outdoor court on which to shoot. Compare that with the cost of a set of golf clubs and green fees every time they want to get out on a course. Then factor in the added expense of the lessons required to hone nascent skills. And, once any kid evinces serious potential, they will need to be travelling the country competing against the best of the best on the most challenging tracks from their early teens. That requires a five-figure annual financial commitment beyond most families, not just African-Americans.
Sifford, his peers and the generation of black players after them came through at a time when caddying still represented a possible route into the sport. They carried bags to earn money and to gain access to places where they could practice. In the country clubs of America though, caddies have been largely replaced by buggies and one more potential avenue on to the tee box has been closed to the less well-off.
Seventeen years ago, golf's ruling bodies established First Tee, a worthy initiative designed to open the gates to children from all backgrounds. Joe Louis Barrow, son of Joe Louis, the former heavyweight champion who also fought to end discrimination in golf, was put in charge.
Almost from the very start, Louis Barrow has been asked to explain why African-American kids aren’t suddenly walking out of the inner cities and strolling down Magnolia Lane. His stock answer is to tell people it takes two decades for the tending of the grassroots to bear fruit.
Any year now then.