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At Augusta National, Not Talking About Race Is Tradition

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The coronavirus pandemic has silenced the Masters Tournament’s resonant roars. It has erased the par-3 contest, drained the color from the wintering azaleas and brought brisk north winds into play for the first time. This week’s tournament, rescheduled from the first major of the year to the last and stripped down to better safeguard the participants from the virus, is happening in one kind of bubble.

But Augusta National has always existed in a bubble, a byproduct of a famously private club consolidating its influence and then enforcing it over the decades while maintaining practices that, throughout most of its storied history, were exclusionary and racist.

The Masters, first played in 1934, didn’t extend an invitation to a Black competitor until 1975. The club didn’t admit its first Black member until 1990 and didn’t offer membership to women until 2012.

As host to what is considered the most prestigious event on the golf calendar, on the most exquisite course that money can maintain, Augusta National serves up a history that is Southern comfort food for the pilgrim’s soul but leaves out the unappetizing bits.

After a year characterized by widespread protests over racial inequality and amid an ongoing reckoning in America over race, Augusta National on Monday at last joined the conversation. The club announced plans to honor Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first Black man to play in the Masters.

On the 45th anniversary of his barrier-breaking appearance, Elder was recognized with an invitation to become an honorary starter alongside the sport’s elder statesmen and long-serving curtain-raisers, 85-year-old Gary Player and 80-year-old Jack Nicklaus.

Fred Ridley, Augusta National’s chairman, said Elder, 86, would join Player and Nicklaus for the ceremonial first tee shot next year, when he hopefully can be surrounded, and celebrated, by the tournament’s customary complement of fans.

“The opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream, and to have it come true in 1975 remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life,” Elder said in a statement. “So to be invited back to the first tee one more time to join Jack and Gary for next year’s Masters means the world to me.”

Ridley also revealed that the club would fund a women’s golf program at Paine College, a historically Black college in Augusta, Ga., and endow two scholarships there in Elder’s name, one to a student on the men’s golf team and one to a student on the women’s.

In a statement, Ridley said the club had decided to recognize Elder’s “courageous life” because of “all he has done in his career to help eliminate barriers and inspire Black men and women in the game of golf and beyond.”

Unspoken was the fact that Augusta National could have honored Elder five, 10 or 15 years ago. In choosing to do so now, the club appeared to be trying to catch the tail end of a wave of racial awakenings that spurred work stoppages across a variety of professional sports, forced the N.F.L. to publicly reverse its position on on-field protests and led to the banning of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events.

Yet golf, especially in America, has always been different. Historically it has practiced segregation by class, gender, race and religion. The Professional Golfers Association had a “Caucasian clause” from 1934 to 1961, which precluded nonwhites from becoming members.

Augusta National’s founders, the famed amateur Bobby Jones and the Wall Street broker Clifford Roberts, were both men of their times. In Golf Digest in 2017, Tom Callahan wrote that Jones and Roberts “might not have been any more bigoted than the average American born in 1894 or 1902, but neither was a champion of affirmative action.”

Callahan will get no argument from the family of Charlie Sifford, whose two PGA Tour victories, at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open, were not enough to gain him a start at the Masters.

“He did everything that was required,” said Sifford’s son Charlie Jr., “and they kept changing the requirements.”

In 1983, Calvin Peete, the second Black golfer after Elder to compete in the Masters, was asked his opinion of the Masters traditions. “Till Lee Elder came, the only Blacks here were caddies and waiters,” he said. “To ask a Black man how he feels about the traditions of the Masters is like asking him how he feels about his forefathers, who were slaves.”

In 2020, the defending champion is Tiger Woods, a five-time winner whose 15 major championships make him the most conspicuous symbol of racial progress in the sport.

“Yes, it has had some roots that I don’t think that everyone is proud of,” Woods said last month, referring to Augusta National. “But it has evolved. We have minority members now. It’s more diverse.”

Augusta National’s membership, thought to number roughly 300, is not a matter of public record. The club’s dues and rules are also kept secret, though it can be surmised by the reluctance of members to speak openly that not publicly addressing club matters is rule No. 1.

ImageCharlie Sifford’s two PGA Tour victories weren’t enough to gain him a start at the Masters. “He did everything that was required,” his son said, “and they kept changing the requirements.”
Credit…Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

One member, Lynn Swann, an N.F.L. Hall of Fame receiver and one-time Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, demurred weeks ago when asked about the proposal to honor Elder.

“The club has some histories and traditions and things that they follow,” Swann said in a telephone interview. “I’m on a committee that does not look into those things.”

Wendell Haskins, who left his post as the diversity director for the PGA of America in 2017, first proposed making Elder an honorary starter at Augusta more than five years ago. But it wasn’t until he got outside golf’s bubble, he said, that he understood why he had not been able to make more inroads in the sport.

This fall, Haskins enrolled in an online course through Cornell University to earn a diversity and inclusion certificate. One of the lessons, he said, was that meaningful diversity in any club or company can only happen when the people brought in are not expected to conform to the existing environment but are encouraged to add their unique perspective.

Upon hearing the news that Augusta National had adopted his proposal, Haskins was reflective.

“It’s significant for Augusta National to be doing this at this moment in time,” said Haskins, now the chief marketing officer of the Professional Collegiate League. “I think it’s extremely special. I know it’s going to mean a lot to the people of color who want to see more reflections of themselves in the game.”

Still, he remained dubious that the club’s power brokers were committed to changing its culture. “What are they doing from this day forward to create a climate that is welcoming and comfortable and allowing people to be their authentic selves?” Haskins said.

In 2008, Kenton Makin, a Black sportswriter, was assigned to cover the Masters for The Aiken Standard, a daily newspaper in South Carolina. He walked the grounds and noticed that most of the patrons, as the spectators are called, were white. And most of the people picking up the trash and serving him food in the media center were Black.

“I felt that angst, that uncomfortability,” Makin said.

He was at the event again in 2012, he said, and hasn’t been back since. Makin, who now hosts a podcast, said: “I call it ‘that golf tournament.’ The reason I call it ‘that golf tournament’ is I think calling it the Masters when you understand its sordid history, I think the Masters is in and of itself an ideology that literally ties back to white supremacy.”

If Augusta National’s loblolly pines, some of which predate the Civil War, could talk, they would tell the story of a parcel of land that has gone from an indigo plantation in the middle of the 19th century to a private white men’s society that reflected the racist mores of the 20th century to a private wealthy person’s society in the 21st century that hosts the most prestigious professional golf tournament in the world, has Black and female members and now even oversees a women’s amateur tournament.

“The reality is we can’t get caught looking back to claw our way forward,” Swann, 68, said, adding, “We’ve got to progress and move forward, and those people who have held others back are going to have to make an adjustment and understand that that is no longer viable.”

Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

It was never going to be possible to move forward without revisiting the past. The initiatives that Ridley announced Monday may relieve the tension that has rippled just beneath the serene surface of the Masters, the tug and pull between people who revere Augusta National as a holy place and those who view it as a remnant of the country’s segregationist history. But in honoring one Black player, it also shines a new light on those it continues to ignore.

Jim Dent, 81, an Augusta native and Paine College alumnus, participated in his first Masters when he was 15 — as a caddie, because that was the only avenue available to him at the time. He joined the PGA Tour at 31 without the benefit of a single lesson and, as a long-hitting journeyman pro, inspired other Black players for parts of five decades while winning more than $500,000 on the tour and posting 12 victories on the 50-and-older tour.

Dent was to the ’70s what Bryson DeChambeau is to 2020 — a pro whose drives made jaws drop. In June, the entrance to the Augusta Municipal Golf Course was renamed Jim Dent Way to honor his contributions to the sport. Ira Miller, the general manager of the course, known affectionately as the Patch, would love to see Dent recognized in some way by Augusta National.

“Jim is right here in the backyard,” Miller said, adding, “What stops them from honoring him?”

Sifford’s son Charlie Jr. said his father, known to his family as Big Charlie, never set foot on the grounds of Augusta National before his death in 2015 at age 92. He could never get out of his head what he claimed Roberts had said: As long as Roberts was alive, all the caddies at Augusta National would be Black and all the players would be white. Roberts died in 1977 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Sifford’s nephew Chris Sifford traveled from his home in North Carolina to attend his first Masters some time ago. Walking the storied course, “I got goose bumps,” he said.

But as the day wore on and he took in the majesty of the grounds and the magnificence of the event, he thought of his uncle, and his ebullient mood soured.

“Here was this guy who did everything you told him to do that was required and he wasn’t allowed to play,” Chris Sifford said. “As electrifying as it was to walk the golf course, I really left sad knowing what they did to him.”

He has not been back.

“I think they should right the ship by rewriting the narrative,” Chris Sifford said, adding, “They never righted the ship, especially as Charlie was concerned.”

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