Diversity at the Highest Level

Diversity at the Highest Level

A longstanding bastion of the elite, Baltusrol Golf Club is building a membership that mirrors the rest of the country

By Michael Bamberger

It would seem to be almost impossible that a grown person could read a committee report to a board of governors at an elite country club and be moved to tears, but I recently had that experience.

A member at Baltusrol Golf Club, where Jack Nicklaus won a pair of U.S. Opens, including in 1967, by four shots over Arnold Palmer, sent me a report from the club’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which seeks to make the club, in northern New Jersey and elite by almost any definition, look more like the rest of the country, both in its membership rolls and by way of employment. (What is a private club without an effective staff? Chaos.) That means, to use the word of the moment, outreach. To prospective Black members and employees, Hispanic, Asian, transgender, women and others. Also, to make the club, with its two courses, available for outside play for golfers who seldom get access to courses as historic and challenging and spectacular as the two Tillinghast courses at Baltusrol.

But wait, there’s more!

The club makes an ongoing effort to find college scholarships and internships for club caddies and employees, and to make golf equipment available to young people interested in the game who do not have access to it.

The club makes an ongoing effort to hire people with significant learning challenges.

The club sponsors the golf team at a K-12 school in Newark, N.J., St. Benedict’s Prep, where nearly 100 percent of the student body, which is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, comes from some of Newark’s roughest neighborhoods. Forty percent of the student body is in counseling for anger management and other issues.

You’re a golfer, right? If so, the game has enriched your life. Do you think it’s possible that the game could do the same for some of those kids?

If this is woke, I’m woke and proud. A few years ago I bought a Rainbow flag T-shirt having no idea what the flag represented, just drawn to the colors. Now that I know better, I wear it even more happily, but not at a course that requires a collared shirt.

USGA officials have been checking out Baltusrol’s D&I efforts. Many clubs might do something similar, but on a far more casual and here-and-there basis. If there’s another elite club in the country doing diversity and inclusion the way Baltusrol is, the USGA does not know about it. I certainly don’t.

I’m not going to do a whole long thing here. I have been talking, off and on this summer, to Neale Trangucci, a member of the club’s D&I committee. He sent me the report, which I found, oddly and unpredictably, moving. The objective, the statement says at its top, “is to act, not study and discuss.”

How about this sentence, from Section 1, Part B, Item I: “The club is perceived as a place for ‘old white guys’ and not welcoming to women.”

As Tiger Woods and others have often said, the starting point to improvement is to analyze your weaknesses with candor.

Howard University, the historically Black and academically great institution in Washington, D.C., has started a golf team. Last year, Baltusrol made the club available for a Princeton-Howard match.

Diversity at the Highest Level

Steve Mills (top photo, second from right), a Baltusrol member, will root for any Princeton team. He played basketball at Princeton under the legendary Pete Carril, graduating in 1981. He’s a board member of the university’s Varsity Club. But as a Black member at Baltusrol, who found his way to the club through its D&I committee, he was delighted to know the club was hosting such an event.

Mills, 63 and retired after a long career as an NBA and New York Knicks executive, is the son of a school teacher and basketball coach (his father) and a social worker (his mother). He attended a Quaker high school on Long Island. (The Quakers, in a sentence: War begets war.) That school, the Friends Academy in Locust Valley, was virtually all white. An elite private club, Piping Rock, was down the road. The club and its membership practices meant absolutely nothing to him. Golf meant nothing to him. When he got to Princeton, Mills said in a recent interview, three of the university’s elite private eating clubs, Cottage, Ivy and Tiger Inn, were virtually all white and exclusively male. Mills noted, half-laughing at the memory, that he and some of his Black friends at the university found an easy path to the better parties at these and other eating clubs: as DJs.

“It didn’t seem right or feel right but we felt like change was going to come over time,” Mills said. Albeit slowly. The Black students, and many other students at Princeton, were more concerned about the university’s divesting itself from its investment in South Africa during the apartheid era.

There was no golf culture in the NBA executive offices during the David Stern years. Mills took up golf on his own at the public courses in Newark in the early- and mid-1990s. That was after he ruptured a tendon playing basketball. His wife pushed him to golf, just as Michelle Obama pushed her husband to golf, to get him off the basketball court. Mills noted that Obama pulled off what he could not: a middle-aged life that includes a lot of basketball and golf.

“When we played basketball, afterward we talked about basketball,” Mills said. “Golf was the same. My wife would ask, ‘What did you guys talk about out there?’ I’d say, ‘Golf.’” Golf was in him now, as basketball had been in him all his life.

In time, a Princeton friend said to Mills, “You should think about joining Baltusrol.” Despite his Princeton degree, his world travel as an NBA executive and his sturdy income, he did not really know anyone at Baltusrol. He knew Black golfers could join the club—Len Coleman, another Princeton graduate and the last president of baseball’s National League, was a member—but Mills didn’t think that he could do it. Enter Baltusrol’s D&I committee.

“The D&I committee made it possible for me, Mills said. “The people on it made it efficient. They helped me meet the right people, gave me the opportunity to play with members of the executive committee. You can’t buy your way into a place like Baltusrol. You have to play golf, love golf, appreciate the history of the club. The club has to know you as a person, know that you will represent the club well, use the club appropriately, enjoy the other members. It takes familiarity. It takes coaching to get you through the process.”

What a breath of fresh air, just the candor and openness of it all. Baltusrol is not saying Come on in! Baltusrol is saying, We want to get to know you.

I asked Mills about the Supreme Court’s recent decision to narrow affirmative action programs at elite colleges. “It’s short-sighted,” he said. “There’s a need for diversity. A benefit and necessary component to make society great, in education, and other parts of life, is diversity, in opinion, in experience, in all matters.

“That extends to the country club. Golf is a fantastic game, played by all sorts of people. But you need diversity of elite country clubs to allow for the access of golf to more people. In any environment, the people who are living in ecosystems that are not diverse are putting themselves at a disadvantage.”

If this discussion interests you, you might enjoy a book called The Protestant Establishment. E. Digby Baltzell, the author and a Penn professor, studied how elite groups lose their power if they do not assimilate talented people into their class, their clubs and societies.

In 1978, when Mills was at Princeton, a fellow student, Sally Frank, sued the three all-male eating clubs for their single-sex admission practices. Mills, who is a member of the LPGA board of directors, recently met Frank, and congratulated her for the work she did in the name of progress so many years ago. It took more than a decade, but the three clubs eventually became open to women. Mills’s daughter, Danielle, Princeton Class of 2016, became a member of Ivy. Frank opened the door, even though she never got in herself and faced a great deal of harassment. The courts and an evolving society more than helped.

Another Garden State institution, Baltusrol Golf Club, is doing the same.

Mills will sometimes play at Baltusrol with three other Black golfers. Nobody bats an eye.

“It’s normal,” he said.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

4 thoughts on “Diversity at the Highest Level”

  1. Bravo, Michael…as usual on top of a very important story!! Hopefully, Baltusrol will be a model for other clubs.

  2. Thanks for this. It’s nice to see the elite clubs making an effort, and I wish more clubs would highlight membership diversity (if/when possible) when on the hunt for new members. It’s a real asset. If you want to grow the game, how can you not mirror the changes in the rest of society?

  3. Thanks for this Michael. During my one year odyssey to play the country’s most elite venues, I was the only black golfer on the course at almost every club. The exceptions were the three times I was hosted by Blacks (The Golf Club, Dallas National, and Double Eagle) and Seminole where Larry Fitzgerald was playing in the foursome ahead of me. Unfortunately, that was unsurprising. What was surprising – I encountered just two black PGA professionals, Norman Blanco at Pebble Beach and Burley Stamps at Riviera, both were assistants. It is long past time for this game that can open so many doors, to move past it’s segregated history. I applaud Baltusrol for “doing” rather than just “talking and studying” and Kudos to you and the Fire Pit Collective for calling attention to their work and this important issue,

    Jimmie James

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