No black players? The US Open field reflects golf’s missed opportunity with Tiger Woods

LOS ANGELES − Tiger Woods, who is recovering from ankle surgery, will not participate US Open which starts on Thursday. Neither did the influence on golf many thought he would have.

In 1997, Woods ignited the imagination when he became the first black player to win the Masters. At just 21 years old, he was the superstar that some hoped (and others predicted) would revolutionize the sport by attracting more black people to the golf course and inspiring the development of the best black professionals.

Look now.

More than 26 years later, the 156-player field at the US Open, to be played at Los Angeles Country Club, has a clear void: no known black players.

Warning: The United States Golf Association (USGA), which runs the US Open, says it does not ask players about their race, so it is impossible to confirm there are no black players.

But Mike Whan, executive director of the USGA, acknowledges that the governing body of American golf missed an opportunity with Woods’ dramatic rise as golf’s leading man.

“I feel like we all watched the Tiger Woods parade go by, and when the parade went, it actually went,” Whan said. “Like it was five amazing years.”

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Fred Perpall, who was elected in February as the USGA’s first black president, said, “I think what’s happening in elite golf is a reflection of the choices we’ve made in the past.”

How did golf fail after the rise of Tiger Woods?

For the past decade, Kenneth Bentley has served on the board of Tiger Woods’ foundation. He is keenly aware of the opportunity golf had when Woods burst onto the pro scene.

“When Tiger won the Masters in ’97, there was no infrastructure to say, ‘OK, we’re going to integrate golf,”’ said Bentley, who is Black and a member of the Farmers Insurance Exchange Board of Governors. “And I’m not sure in 97, whether the people who played golf were really ready for an influx of African-American golfers.”

Tiger Woods will not play at the 2023 US Open.

In 2010, Bentley set out to create infrastructure when he founded the Advocates Professional Golf Association (APGA) to develop minority professional golfers.

It involves doing what the golf world failed to do in a sustained, meaningful way. Which should provide access to top equipment, instruction and options.

This year, for example, the APGA will host 18 tournaments with a total prize pool of $1 million.

“I’ve been in this for a while and I’m frustrated,” he said. “I get frustrated because I want to see programs happen faster, but I get energized when I see how optimistic the players are…

“Obviously there are people out there trying to change the dynamic of golf. But I think it’s slower than what we all wanted.”

How to Accelerate the Development of Minority Golfers

In February, the USGA launched a national development program, and Whan said he is aiming for grant money “in the neighborhood” of $40 million.

Bentley said he wonders how much of that money will be used to develop minority golfers.

“I’ve been saying this for years, but now I’m sitting in a seat where we can do something about it,” Whan said. “We’re going to be all in on the US National Development Team and we’re going to make sure that talented kids, no matter what they look like, where they’re from, or how wealthy their parents are in the US, have the chance to go – every other country in the world have a country program to promote and develop their youth pipeline.”

So Bentley continues to wonder while providing some math that could be useful to the USGA. He said he spends about $30,000 a year on each of the 10 players in his development program.

“To make a real difference, we need two or three times that amount,” he said.

What happens next?

Electing a Black USGA president is no guarantee of creating enough top black players to avoid wondering if there is any US Open.

Perpall, who is serving a three-year term, shared some thoughts on the case.

“I would love for this to be like a shortcut, so we could just push the magic wand,” he said. “I think what we’re doing with Team USA (through the development program) and investing in more inclusion and more opportunity and more accessibility will hopefully change that trajectory.”

Marcus Byrd celebrates after winning the APGA Tour Farmers Insurance Invitational at Torrey Pines Golf Course on January 29, 2023 in La Jolla, California.

Marcus Byrd celebrates after winning the APGA Tour Farmers Insurance Invitational at Torrey Pines Golf Course on January 29, 2023 in La Jolla, California.

It can be done, said Bentley, who pointed to Marcus Byrd, who has won five times as the APGA’s top player and this year played in three PGA Tour events.

“Here’s a guy who didn’t have any money,” Bentley said. “Growing up in the worst neighborhood in Washington DC and now he’s got sponsors, he’s got an opportunity, that’s kind of what APGA is all about.”

Could this be what the USGA is all about?

“Now that I’ve been able to make the connections and play in a lot of these events, I’ve started to figure out the right people to be around, the right people to talk to,” Byrd said, adding of his dream of to play on the PGA Tour, “It’s definitely not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of when.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open 2023 reflects golf’s missed opportunity: No black players

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