The Advocacy Machine Behind the Diversity Mission

A look at how the golf industry’s collective efforts to make the game more welcoming and inclusive, includes strong supporting data culled from SLRG’s ongoing attitudinal tracking work with golfers. 

In a bygone era, the weekly Saturday Evening Post was read by six million Americans — the same number who nowadays watch the “CBS Evening News.” Back in the spring of 1961, Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Golden Rule” illustration graced the magazine’s cover, comprising two dozen figures of every race, religion and conceivable native costume. For a vast American audience, this was “diversity” depicted in a strikingly new way.

Over time, the often-folksy Rockwell has been recognized as a contributor to the national conscience. Diversity, equity and inclusion — DE&I for short — is a catchall concept many say was born in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, when the artist’s most provocative images appeared on newsstands.

In the span of those decades, diversity gradually has transcended race, color and creed to encompass the LGBTQ+ community, disabled Americans and others at society’s margins. Just as notably, DE&I has moved beyond the realm of social activism and government policy to influence the conduct of corporations, small businesses and industries — golf included.

In golf, the DE&I initiative known as Make Golf Your Thing debuted around the time that We Are Golf was rebranded as the American Golf Industry Coalition. With that strong lean toward diversity and inclusion, the Coalition’s mission expanded notably. A prior focus on “advocating for legislative and regulatory issues of importance” wasn’t forgotten, but it was joined in equal vigor by a commitment to “the industry’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.”

Traveling down each of these two pathways takes the industry toward worthy outcomes that can be measured and evaluated. When you lobby for legislative and regulatory issues, you’re counting up all the H-2B visas available to golf facilities during these times of tight labor, or you’re pressuring Congress to repeal an onerous interpretation of the Clean Water Act. Down the DE&I path, success is defined by an increase in the number of under-served people entering the golf population and likewise the golf workforce — including at upper levels of authority and pay.

Are the two causes equally worthwhile? It’s a question worth pondering.

The path of DE&I produces a greater feel-good factor. Ira Molayo and Dave Ridley of Cedar Crest Golf Course in South Dallas can attest to that. At Cedar Crest there’s a full-circle community outreach that starts when a Black or Latino teen from the neighborhood first gets invited to a clinic or camp, then begins to play and progressively develops decent golf skills. It continues when they’re trained as a worker at the course and mentored through an internship — hitting a high spot when and if they earn scholarship funding from the 501(c)(3) that Ridley and Molayo founded. The capper is to have a scholarship recipient come back, degree in hand, to begin their professional golf career at Cedar Crest. It’s a cycle that’s been achieved multiple times, to the great satisfaction of those involved.

There really isn’t a similar feeling of inspiration driven by accomplishments on the lobbying side, but that’s not to say there isn’t a vital fairness factor underlying many of those causes. Years ago when FEMA money for repairs to flood-ravaged public courses was criticized, We Are Golf had to step up. It was the same situation with a Great Recession ruling that excluded golf courses — lumping them in with casinos, massage parlors and liquor stores — from receiving government stimulus money.

It’s worth adding that making a case with elected officials for the business community you represent is undeniably more straightforward. You win or lose, the dust eventually settles, controversy ebbs. Opposing voices from outside your industry will move on to engage in other debates. Meanwhile, certain hard data points can win the day if they fall in your favor. No one questions the value of a reduced carbon footprint, so when a golf course or a nation’s worth of golf courses achieves that measurably, a PR victory gets declared — one that can’t be argued.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is a different sort of battle to join, one that’s more complex and one in which opposing parties can be ultra-high-profile.

The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, appears ready to end a half-century of affirmative action in higher education this June when it decides a pair of cases involving Harvard and the University of North Carolina, respectively. New legislation in Florida shows steps taken to block state colleges from including DE&I in educational curricula and on-campus programs.

Meanwhile, corporate America’s DE&I advocacy appears to have sputtered somewhat: Job listings in the field were down 19 percent in 2022, according to Ad Age, and a Bloomberg News report found that DE&I professionals had recently been laid off at Amazon, Redfin, Twitter and Meta / Facebook. According to the Ad Age report, the Chief Diversity Officer at Meta “warned last fall that cost-cutting would slow its diversity hiring efforts.”

One way to make industry efforts within the diversity landscape more straightforward and manageable is to pick one’s own battles, which seems to happen in the natural course of things.

Diversifying golf’s player population and diversifying its workforce are two distinct processes that can be approached from different angles. A golfer from a population we don’t typically see on the fairways will basically do what all golfers do — what’s important is the inclusion. But a staff member who represents diversification will help change the way an organization thinks and acts — very often in ways that measurably improve business results. One expert on the subject, Alexandria Love, has written that diversity gives companies the chance “to amplify new voices in management, innovate new products, and ultimately, raise their bottom line — not always the most altruistic reasoning, but effective.”

The industry’s increasingly open-door policy seems to be yielding results. At the 2023 Golf Business Conference, analysts from the highly regarded Sports & Leisure Research Group presented their annual compilation of consumer and trade attitudes — including one nugget to draw the eye of anyone curious about diversity on golf’s landscape. The statement, “Golf has become a more welcoming sport,” drew 77 percent agreement from survey participants, on top of the 76 percent who agreed with that same statement a year earlier. (Those numbers came in higher than the agreement numbers for the self-evident statement that “More people working from home has increased the amount of golf being played,” which received only 69 percent.)

Golf has made its commitment to inclusiveness at a favorable point in time, based on the rapid growth of off-course play using simulators. When it comes to new-player relations, even the most open-hearted welcome at a greengrass facility can do only so much to offset the feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment caused by awful shots. For the new player indoors, pounding the ball at a golf course on a screen, things are dramatically different. Tommy Lim, founder and CEO of sim-golf leader Golfzon, has customer data to prove it.

“The great attraction of simulator golf to the less-experienced player is not having to worry about pace of play, first-tee anxiety, or even playing a full round,” says Lim. “It’s a stress-free environment.”

Lim’s next comment hits on that basic duality within DE&I — how it covers both the consumer/participant as well as the hiring and advancement of employees.

“We’ve noticed real growth with newcomers in corporate events,” he says. “When a business rents a simulator facility for an event, many of the employees have never swung a golf club, but it doesn’t matter because no one is watching them from the clubhouse or judging bad shots. They aren’t slowing down other players, so they can relax, have fun and concentrate on learning the basics.” For years industry people have been wondering, “Where did corporate golf go?” Apparently it’s moved indoors.

Diversifying the workforce component seems trickier, because of the career commitment factor. Articles from 10 to 15 years ago about diversity in the golf profession and in golf operations generally bemoaned the fact that African-Americans were so little represented among club pros or in the feeder system, including Professional Golf Management programs at universities. Improved recruitment was deemed necessary, so that minority candidates could envision a place for themselves. Fast-forward to the 2020s and one could find many articles saying just about nobody wants to become an assistant golf professional. Did African-American young people simply have less trouble figuring out that long hours and low pay weren’t an appealing career path?

As mentioned, DE&I is still evolving and means different things to different people — best to divide it into its constituent parts and lay out an array of goals. Disabled Americans, for example, can be a less visible component of the minority mosaic, but equally deserving of inclusion. Golf’s record of dedication to their cause and successful accommodation of citizens with disabilities — military and civilian alike — is enviable.

People who work in the diversity space understand not to take a one-size-fits-all approach to the array of communities out there seeking more inclusion. Needs will differ and progress comes more slowly or quickly depending on the group you’re talking about and the industry or social sector that’s seeking to lower its barriers.

Audrey Rodriguez is Director of Global Brand Marketing for Golf Pride, which launched a diversity-and-inclusion initiative last year around the U.S. Women’s Open, with plans to pursue a similar effort in 2023 at an even deeper level. “Diversity programs are out there,” says Rodriguez. “It’s a rising tide, and we at Golf Pride are strongly committed to it.”

The grip manufacturing giant is, within golf, a relatively early mover on DE&I but is able to build on societal and corporate momentum. For Rodriguez, this means looking at women who are already in golf and creating initiatives or programming that “draw them more into the inner circles” where men have historically felt comfortable. This requires cultural change within golf clubs, leagues and tournament programs — of the sort that’s happening but remains a work in progress. People who travel up the “I belong” curve in golf are people who feel free to become more “gear-headed,” in her estimation.

“Think about grips,” Rodriguez says. “They’re not a commodity, but you probably don’t understand that until you’ve moved past whatever obstacle is in your way and you’ve become confident identifying as a serious golfer.”

She brings up the analogy of the female runner who begins to see herself as a committed participant, ready to enter competitions “beyond just the Turkey Trot.” Eventually that female participant in running or golf or any other activity makes such a meaningful personal investment that they fully join the culture of the activity, or to use Rodriguez’s word, “they turn into evangelists.”

Just as the individual golf operation is able to mow the greens and manage the tee sheet simultaneously, golf in its public-square persona seems well able to fight its regulatory battles and pursue its diversity outreach efforts at the same time. In the realm of diversity, equity and inclusion, golf may even have history on its side.