A few years back while transitioning careers, I spent a little time driving a taxi on the beaches near Jacksonville, Florida. One of my frequent customers was an elderly gentleman named Calvin who lived in the golf community of Ponte Vedra. We had chatted about all kinds of things during our trips to the store, Florida’s beautiful scenery, the Jaguars, and local politics among other things. It wasn’t until the last time I ever drove Calvin that he even mentioned anything about golf. Being that he was a good-natured man, I figured he was merely spinning a tall tale when he told me he played in…wait…even better, that he WON the Players Championship, aka the “fifth major,” in the 1980s. Ponte Vedra is the home of the legendary TPC Sawgrass golf course which hosts the tournament, an event that awards the largest purse in golf. Of course, being a cab driver and former bartender, I’ve heard a yarn or two, laughing it off as typical braggadocio, only to Google it later. Sure enough, turns out that Calvin Peete was not only the winner of the 1985 Players Championship, he was also the greatest black golfer in history not named Tiger.
Life changes quickly sometimes; and I never got another chance to drive Calvin again and eat my crow sandwich with cheese in front of him. Admittedly, I am less knowledgeable about golf than I am with many other sports, but it pains me greatly that I missed out on the opportunity to talk about the game that my grandfather introduced me to with a legend, or at least someone who deserves legendary status. Peete died last April 29th following a long battle with lung cancer, less than a month after the 30th anniversary of his historic victory at Sawgrass. With 12 PGA wins and four top-10 finishes in majors, Peete was a damn good golfer, even more amazing given the fact that the Detroit native never even picked up a set of clubs until his 20s, unheard of for a professional athlete. Despite a permanently bent arm from a childhood accident, Peete led the PGA in driving accuracy every year from 1981 until his final full season in 1990. After playing sparingly in the early 1990s, and then spending a few years on the senior circuit, Peete quietly retired to his home in Ponte Vedra to live the rest of his life amid the confines of his greatest victory.
Beyond his own personal achievements, Peete and his wife Pepper were also instrumental in supporting local golf in the region. Given both the Players Championship and the fact that the PGA Tour is also headquartered in Ponte Vedra, the greater Jacksonville area is one of golf’s premier localities, nearly on the same level as Augusta, Pinehurst, and Pebble Beach. Calvin spent much of his golden years working with young golfers, and Pepper served as the executive director of the First Tee of North Florida for nearly a decade. The First Tee is a nationwide youth program whose mission is to teach leadership skills using lessons learned through golf. The program has been instrumental in attracting young people to the game, especially for minorities and lower-income people for which golf is often difficult to access. The First Tee uses the rules of golf, especially those involving self-accountability, transcending the sport and applying them to everyday life. The program’s nine core values include: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment. Since its inception, over nine million young people have participated in the program.
The First Tee was founded in 1997, shortly after Tiger Woods’s historic win at Augusta. Former president George H.W. Bush served as the program’s honorary chairman from its inception until 2010; then moving to an emeritus role with his son George W. Bush now serving as the honorary chairman. The buzz surrounding Woods and his historic career has boosted golf’s popularity in general and likely helped the program gain a great deal of traction. The First Tee now operates over 180 chapters in the U.S., along with a program in Vancouver, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand. By 2008, 16 percent of all participants were minorities, with seven percent being African American. Local pro Boots Farley took over for Pepper Peete in the executive director role in 2013, and has overseen a rapid expansion in the Jacksonville area that now includes eight counties in total. In 2011, Scott Langley became the first golfer from the First Tee program to earn his PGA Tour card.
When Calvin Peete won the Greater Milwaukee Open by five strokes in 1979, he joined Pete Brown, Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder as the only black golfers to win a PGA event. Since Peete’s last PGA win in 1986, there has been exactly one African American to win on the tour, Tiger Woods. Sadly, despite the First Tee and other programs geared towards attracting minority golfers, the sport at its highest level still maintains its restrictive appearance. More startling, according to ESPN; there were 12 African Americans on the tour in 1976, which is 11 more than in 2015. This comes even with the outreach efforts of Woods, the Peetes, Eddie Payton, former NFL player and brother of NFL legend Walter, alongside several non-minority PGA pros who have worked with the First Tee and other programs. Although they have certainly helped spread the popularity of golf nationwide, there is still a missing link between these development programs and minority participation on the PGA Tour. For Farley, this link is immaterial to the bigger picture, saying “The First Tee may turn out good golfers, even great golfers, but our mission is turning out better citizens.”
Next week, the golf world will be focused on Augusta once more, a full generation removed from Tiger Woods’s historic 12 stroke victory, the first of his 14 majors. It also means defending champion and golf’s newest sensation Jordan Speith has been tasked with planning the Champions Dinner, a tradition dating back to the early 1950s (Texas Barbecue for Speith FYI). Unfortunately, it’s difficult to reference the Champions Dinner, one of the highlights of Masters Week, without thinking about former Masters winner and noted joker Fuzzy Zoeller’s extremely racist comments about the dinner following Woods’s 1997 victory. Becoming one of the most outrageous (and repeated) quotes in the history of sport, Zoeller told reporters, “He’s doing quite well, pretty impressive. That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well. He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it.” Zoeller then snapped his fingers and began walking away while adding, “Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”
Woods handled the comment like a true champion which garnered him much respect on the tour, even among those who disapprove of his oft-abrasive (and robotic) personality during the majority of his career. Conversely Zoeller, whose career had faded significantly regardless, lost his corporate sponsors and basically fell into irrelevance ever since (aside from the comment itself). Many golfers, while condemning Zoeller’s statement, did express sympathy for his downfall, claiming that he is a good guy at heart who got carried away with telling an inappropriate joke. Regardless, the incident caused a good deal of soul-searching among the PGA Tour’s rank and file during a period in which Tiger’s dominance made any notion of racial inferiority on the course supremely laughable. Still, as Woods obliterated the record books during the 2000s, (at least until his much-publicized domestic issues in late 2009), it was largely ignored that no African American golfers were clinging to his coattails. With Tiger’s career apparently in decline; and with new sensations like Speith and Rory McIlroy stealing the spotlight, the conspicuous absence of (American) minorities on the PGA Tour is becoming more nagging. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the tour isn’t becoming more diverse, as it has seen a rapid influx of international golfers enter, and at times, dominate in U.S. competition. It is also very unlikely PGA Tour execs and players would not fully welcome another transcendent player like Woods. His dominance and visibility have been key factors in the exponential rise in tournament purses and total earnings on the tour over the past generation. Essentially, Tiger Woods made a lot of other golfers a lot of money.
Among all sports, Golf may provide the most obstacles between someone who never picked up a set of clubs and the pro level. In addition to needing freakish talent, golf is hard, very hard, and for the most part, constant practice is compulsory to have the slimmest chance of being elite. Golf equipment, greens fees, and lessons are usually quite expensive. Golf Magazine’s Michael Bamberger observed in 2014, “In Division I men’s collegiate golf, still the main incubation chamber for PGA Tour players, the golfers, overwhelmingly, are white kids from country-club backgrounds with easy access to range balls and to a guy in the shop who knows all about custom shafts.” Woods offers a different perspective on the void, saying during last year’s Players Championship that the “advent of the golf cart,” as well as the elimination of caddie programs have contributed to the problem. Woods told reporters “You’ve got to watch, simulate it,” adding, “You’ve got to be around it. That’s all gone. So we don’t have the pool of players anymore.”
It would seem that Woods and Bamberger provide rational explanations as to why there is nearly a complete absence of black golfers at the highest level and trending downward (not that the PGA Tour has ever been particularly diverse in a historical context). As a professional social researcher however, I find this drastic backslide to be statistically impossible, yet it undeniably exists. It is unfathomable to me that not at least one or two exceptionally talented outliers would become mainstays on the PGA Tour, even if they weren’t all-time greats like Woods. This dilemma should certainly be fodder for a comprehensive, grant-funded academic study into the reasons, which appear to be more complicated than any sort of armchair conjecture could justify. Unfortunately, we at Legal Reader do not have the resources to undergo this type of research, so I must say that I don’t have an answer.
As Farley told me in a phone interview, the First Tee is not a junior development program in the traditional sense (that exists in many sports to foster future pros). At the same time, the First Tee’s success in teaching the virtues of golf to young people may ultimately provide the antidote for the void of minority participation. As the kids who grow up learning and appreciating the sport through programs like the First Tee become parents, it is likely that a large swath of them will begin teaching their children the game at a young age. Some may even emulate Earl Woods, helping to mold a handful of young minority golfers with elite talent into future pros. By 2036, this article might look like a flat-Earth argument; with American pros becoming more representative of the population as a whole. For the time being, however, the absence of African Americans on the PGA Tour is becoming more and more conspicuous.
(A special thanks to Boots Farley for offering his time and valuable expertise).
CBS Sports – Kyle Porter
ESPN – Ian O’Connor
Golf Digest – John Strege
Golf Magazine (Golf.com) – Michael Bamberger