Golf is Not Exempt

My regular readers know that I am fascinated by the culture of golf. I’m working on a book on that topic as I write this.

This morning , while having breakfast I came across a heartwarming pledge by Jerry Tarde, Editor-in-Chief of Golf Digest committing the publication to promoting and advocating for inclusion, diversity, access and sustainability in golf. These are clearly the areas where our grand and wonderful old game needs work. For the game’s most prominent publication to make such a commitment is not only the right thing to do and likely a good business decision, it reflects the recognition of where our larger society is in July, 2020.

As one who’s been fortunate to play at (some of the best) private clubs throughout my life I can relate to Tarde’s assertion that “it’s hard to see the real world from the players-only (or members-only) dining room.” Growing up in the 1960’s and early 70’s in conservative Central Pennsylvania, my (then and still) best golf buddy, was excluded from some clubs (not mine) because of his race and we often played public courses. Sometimes, there were “looks” when I took him to my club to play or when we traveled together to and from junior tournaments and best-ball team events.

For many years, golf has avoided much of the social evolution occurring in the broader society. As the most recent (and wider reaching) chapter of social progress takes place, I’m hopeful and confident that the golf world will no longer consider itself exempt. This time, it seems different.

We are experiencing a cultural change that not only has the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians considered likely to change their brands, but NASCAR, The Southeastern Conference, the US Navy/Marines and even the State of Mississippi are divorcing themselves from the inflammatory symbols of exclusion.

Golf and country clubs nationwide, private and public alike are reviewing their names and logos to determine if they’re offensive and considering changes, all in the interest of image and branding, which includes names, logos, policies and associations. There are some who feel (especially with private clubs) compelled to preserve tradition with little consideration for the social impact. That’s their right. As I recently wrote, “Change” is a scary word to many.

However, regardless of one’s social or political beliefs there are significant economic considerations. With the many institutions as previously mentioned considering changes in branding, golfers, including members at many private clubs need to consider their risks of association, regardless of their personal feelings. Some may be critical of this as practicing “political correctness”. I don’t dispute that. It becomes a choice for each and every golfer and club whether they choose to assume the obvious risks inherent with maintaining anything in their branding that can be perceived as offensive.

Golf, the business has a terrific opportunity in 2020 to recover the declines in participation of the last decade +. The game has been recognized as an acceptable activity in a society practicing social distancing when so many other sporting pursuits are considered unsafe. Courses and clubs have already experienced increased play and membership which some predict will continue in the long term. Broadening and diversifying the game’s reach might just expand the market and reverse the trend of course closures experienced in recent years, and allow them to thrive. Why fight what’s good for the growth of the game? Golf is not exempt from the broader society.