The racial political economy of golf, the monumental barriers

I had absolutely no interest in golf until I met Jim Thorpe in Buffalo, New York, in 1997. Of course it was Tiger Woods, the wunderkind of the sport, who would really turn my golf fan gene on fire. I couldn’t wait until Sundays to watch the Tiger dressed in red hitting impossible shots.

He won and won and won. But it was Mr Thorpe who first sparked fan interest in me in the sport. I had moved to Buffalo from Boston to take up a professorship at the State University of New York – at SUNY Buffalo School of Law. Key to this story is that both Woods and Thorpe – important golf icons – are black.

With three young boys in tow, we were looking for a house to buy in a good neighbourhood. That’s when our real estate agent showed us a magnificent property. The house belonged to Thorpe who was moving to Florida to play in the Seniors Tour.

Older players often “graduate” to the Seniors Tour from the PGA Tour because they can’t keep up with the young bucks. Time had come for Thorpe to “graduate.” Florida with its perpetually sunny weather – unlike Buffalo’s temperate and snowy climate – is ideal for many golfers.

Thorpe was offloading his house and I was the lucky buyer. Buying the house of a major golf personality solidified my fan interest in the game.

That isn’t the whole story. Most sports are racialised. Or even segregated if not dominated by particular racial or ethnic groups. The reasons for domination of a sport by a group may be benign, but most are malignant.

Take long distance running. Kenyans and East Africans dominate the sport. But look deeper and you realise that among Kenyans, the Kalenjins are kings of the long distance track.

That’s why some people were somewhat perplexed when Cosmas Ndeti, a Kamba, completely dominated the Boston Marathon from 1993-1995. He was unbeatable.

But the Kalenjin soon reasserted dominance. African-Americans dominate the sprint as well as basketball and American football. Whites dominate ice hockey. They would rule tennis without the Williams sisters.

It’s true that some groups may simply be athletically gifted. The combination of cultivation of the sport in the culture may create ethnic dominance.

I think these two reasons have converged to make the Kalenjin a powerhouse in long distance running. But most of the time, a sport is dominated by a particular group where both social class and race converge. Some sports are simply too expensive for poorer communities to afford.

The start-up costs for ice hockey, tennis, or golf are simply too high for people in less developed countries and among communities of color – which are less well off, or simply marginalised – in North America and Europe. Money is a barrier to particular sports for people of color.

In contrast, all you need to play soccer, basketball, or American football is the ball and your head, feet, or hands. These are generally low investment sports. Many families from challenged backgrounds see these accessible sports as a way out of poverty if one can make it to the professional leagues.

That’s how Michael Jordan became a billionaire and Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James acquired many millions times without number. But golf is expensive. Very expensive.

The clubs themselves cost a fortune and the golf courses are not free. Many are located in exclusively racial or affluent areas. The public courses cost a lot of money even for one round. Persons of color must be very determined to play golf.

That’s why stories of golfers Calvin Peete, Thorpe, and Woods are remarkable. There probably wouldn’t have been Tiger Woods in golf without Mr Peete and Thorpe. The latter two were the black pioneers in the golf. Like them, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, and the Williams sisters have inspired blacks to take up tennis.

Peete and Thorpe grew up poor and it’s remarkable they rose to the top of the sport. They overcame monumental barriers. Woods, in contrast, was affluent. His father taught him the game from an early age. His dominance has inspired thousands of black parents to save and buy their children golf lessons. But it’s tough.

In Africa, golf is a highly racialised game. The few African blacks who play it are elites. On the continent, the two golf powerhouses are South Africa and Zimbabwe, in that order. South Africa is a global power in golf.

But all its world-beating golf champions are white. So are the Zimbabweans. It’s not a leap of logic to link white South African golf prowess to the inequities of apartheid. Land grabbed from blacks was turned into golf courses. That’s the racial political economy of golf.

- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua

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