The Evolution of Golf Culture

 As seen in Golf Business March/April 2021 

jk.jpgBy Jay Karen, NGCOA CEO

I am sitting down to pen this column nine months to the day after the death of George Floyd, which catalyzed an acceleration of the perpetual grappling and reconciliation of racism in our society. It can feel trite to try and build a bridge between the tragic and senseless loss of life to diversity in golf, but they are both underpinned by a very long history of estrangement among Americans based on skin color, ethnicity, gender, etc. In greater society, the matters of rights, power, abuse, discrimination and justice are severe indeed. In golf, although there are vestiges of old power dynamics, our challenges are mostly about culture.

This issue of Golf Business explores some of the fantastic people and work happening in our industry, all of which are impacting the golf culture. Culture cannot change unless the people within the culture also change. This can happen through change of heart or change of mind in the people who occupy said culture, or through changing who is in that culture. Both are happening in golf, because - simply put - the world is also changing.

We are witnessing the industry trying to preserve what has made golf so good and successful over the centuries and generations, while also adapting to changing mores, desires and sensibilities. It’s not an easy process, and not everyone is going to agree on what is worthy of preserving and what is good in the changing sensibilities. For example, golf has some unique codes and etiquette. Some of this etiquette facilitates goodness and respect among people, which is a hallmark of our game. Enter 2020, and we saw a tremor in the culture when some tour professionals wore hoodies on the course. Some may think preserving the old shirt collar rule is culturally good for golf, while more and more people laugh at the luddite sensibility of it. No fabric around the neck = bad. Too much fabric around the neck (in the form of a hoodie) = bad. Three inches of fabric around the neck = good. If people get worked up about fabric around the neck, imagine how worked up and stymied they get about the cultural complexities of race and gender.

Mentioned in this issue is the new guidebook on inclusivity for golf operations, developed by the PGA of America, which NGCOA helped shape. Resources like this help decode some of these cultural complexities that are omnipresent at golf courses. The cultural baggage in the word “plantation” is laced with an incredible amount of negativity to people who descended from slaves, and yet it’s seen as a positive in branding by many who cannot relate. Harvey Silverman does a good job of deconstructing the issue for our readers. And we highlight luminaries such as Renee Powell and Mackenzie Mack. Our past culture did not value people like Powell and Mack as much as we (the collective we in golf) should have.

By its nature, golf brings people together. It’s not a leap to see how allowing the culture to evolve in golf will only result in bringing more people together. When culture moves towards understanding and inclusion (true inclusion), then the aforementioned estrangement will wither. And isn’t that what we really want in America?