The Content of Golfs Character

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My column last week, which compared the gifts and challenges of being Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, got a lot of e-mail response. Much of it was good, and some of it was constructively critical as well.
 
Some of those comments touched on racial differences between Palmer and Woods ' not just the obvious difference between Palmer, the Caucasian, and Woods, whose ancestry includes both African-Americans and Asians, but also the differing attitudes about race in the times when each man was at the height of his popularity. Heres an example of the kind of e-mail I received on this issue:
 
How many golfers of color were there on tour [in 1964]; and how many were allowed to play? A kinder gentler time indeed. Tiger made golf fashionable for the younger players, and more reachable for some of us.
 
I had never intended to cast the comparison between Palmer and Woods in terms of race. Its commendable in the e-mail correspondents on this issue that they approached what they saw as a flaw in my point of view with extreme respect and politeness, yet with unflagging strength of their convictions. (One writer offered his view, as he put it, in the hope that your minds eye would be broadened. Anyone can stand that sort of correction.)
 
The responses, juxtaposed as they were with the utterly indefensible remarks Jan Stephenson made last week, got me thinking about racism in golf, and how the noble mixes with the ugly.
 
Answering a question about problems the LPGA faces in an interview in Golf magazine, Stephenson said, among other things, that the Asians are killing our tour. Absolutely killing it. Their lack of emotion, their refusal to speak English when they can speak English. They rarely speak. We have two-day pro-ams where people are paying a lot of money to play with us, and they say hello and goodbye. Our tour is predominantly international and the majority of them are Asian. Theyve taken it over.
 
Fact-checking problems abound here ' I know for a fact that many of the Asian players Stephenson derides speak no more English than I do Korean ' and Annika Sorenstam might have something to say about Asian dominance, unless Sweden moved to Asia in the dead of night. And I defy anyone to travel to a country where they dont speak the language, try to make a living at a difficult sport, and see how sociable they feel.
 
More problematic, though, is the willingness of a public figure in golf to ascribe what she sees as poor behavior to race and nationality, rather than personality.
 
If the women Stephenson complains about indeed stiff their pro-am partners, its not because the pro hostesses are Asian. One notable Australian player is famous for her rudeness to reporters and her aloofness in general; clearly shes not Asian. This principle is so obvious that it shouldnt require mention. Its painful that someone who has made a life in the best of games, a game where equality, merit and honor have historically been at the forefront, should need to be told this.
 
Stephensons spin following the interview didnt help. Of course she said she didnt mean to deride Asians as a racial group. And she may not have. But lunkheaded insults hurt no less than purposeful hate. That is, you dont have to be a career intentional bigot to reveal by careless speech and actions your insensitivity to people who arent like you.
 
Even more disturbing are the subtle cues within the world of golf that vestiges of discrimination remain. Heres part of another e-mail, in which the writer maintained that Palmer didnt face the societal challenges Woods deals with. After making that point, the writer included a personal note:
 
I'm someone of an African American background, and for the past three years I've been attending golf matches like the Buick Classic, Greater Hartford Open, the U.S. Open & the PGA Championship. And I tell you, women still clutch their bags a little tighter when I get near them, people shift their belongings to a safer position, or stare at me like I'm doing something wrong. Mr. Barr, I'm as clean-cut as the next guy ' no, let me rephrase that ' I would even go as far as to say that I'm even more clean-cut looking then the next guy. I wear dress slacks, shoes, glasses with a button-down shirt, I speak in a natural soft tone. I even have a big bright smile and people still look at me in fear or like I'm beneath them. So I could only imagine how rough/challenging it was for [Tiger], coming up through the golf ranks. Feeling out of place, because people don't want you there.
 
And indeed, Woods and his father have told stories of bad behavior toward them on some golf courses in southern California when Tiger was growing up.
 
You can say as much as you want that the shoddy behavior of fans at tournaments the e-mail writer attended really has nothing to do with golf: They would do the same thing on the subway, at a caf, at a ball game, right? Well, yes. But the fundamental truth is, whatever the reason for this behaviors proximity to golf, it is unworthy of the games nobility. Inside or outside the ropes, one of golfs primary attractions is that it is a meritocracy. Get the ball into the hole in the least strokes, and you win. Thats all. Nowadays, color, national origin, gender ' none of that should matter. I say nowadays because, sadly, it once did matter, and the fact that it did kept huge talents such as Charlie Sifford, the late Althea Gibson and many others from earning their due.
 
Within reason and without hypersensitivity (and none of my e-mail correspondents on this issue were oversensitive), its time for a zero-tolerance policy on racism, ethnocentrism and sexism in golf. Its the only way to convince the next generation that inclusion is the only way to go.
 
Golf ' and everyone who loves it ' deserves that.
 
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