The PGA of America’s Diversity Problem is the PGA Itself
It’s time to look at the structural exclusion before we talk about inclusion
By Laz Versalles
The flagship event of the PGA of America is the PGA Championship, played last week at Southern Hills Country Club. Justin Thomas, son of a PGA professional, won for the second time in his sure-to-be Hall of Fame career. Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., provided viewers with an entertaining stage and a dramatic finish for a PGA Championship that rewarded patience and precision.
During the broadcast, viewers were given a healthy dose of ads from the PGA of America, many highlighting women and minorities. It was PGA diversity on parade. This tracks with the mission of the PGA, which according to its website, aims to be “an organization deeply committed to bringing greater diversity and inclusion to the sport, to the golf industry’s workforce, and to the supply chain.” That’s the goal, at least. The reality is much different.
Of the nearly 29,000 PGA of America members, fewer than 1 percent are African Americans. Under 10 percent are women. I struggle to think of a less diverse organization. A quick visit to the leadership tab on the PGA website shows the leadership team is, unsurprisingly, almost as white as a dozen Pro V1s.
The PGA needs a catalyst for change, and that person appears to be Sandy Cross, who carries the title of chief people officer. She is actively working with leaders from underrepresented communities and clearly not afraid to have the important conversations about the legacy of race and its impact on the landscape of professional golf. Cross is also working to change the face of golf through the PGA Works initiative, which is “designed to diversify the golf industry’s workforce.” Beyond that, a PGA Diversity supply chain initiative hopes to steer more business to minority-owned companies.
All of this is well and good. None of it is novel. And time will tell if it is effective.
Cross has a long road ahead in her quest to diversify the PGA. On her journey, I hope she makes a stop at the Maggie Hathaway Par 3 Golf Course in South Central Los Angeles. On any given day at Maggie Hathaway you’ll find a vibrant golf scene that mirrors the dozens of cultures that make Los Angeles magical. Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, Armenians, Jews, Persians, Whites, kids, seniors—you will find them all at Maggie Hathaway. Everybody loves a par-3 course.
You’ll also find golf professionals. Granted, not PGA of America certified professionals, but professionals who are critical to the growth of the game. You’ll see people such as Mike Williams, who has given thousands of lessons and is a favorite of the patrons of Maggie Hathaway. You might see Angie Johnson, a rare African-American woman teaching golf to players of all ages and skill levels. Recently I had the privilege of meeting Chip Womack, an instructor and coach at Maggie Hathaway, who is entering the PGA of America certification program.
The path to attain PGA Class A certification is not an easy one. For Womack, it means taking a player’s ability test and then spending roughly $10,000 as he progresses through the three levels of the PGA of America curriculum. Realistically, it’s a two-year process, and probably longer. I asked Womack why obtaining Class A PGA Certification was important to him. “I want to be able to reach out to the kids I work with and show them that they can do it,” he replied. “I want them to say, ‘Hey, here’s someone that’s in that club’ and I want them to see themselves through me and through the PGA. And I love golf! I love it, and I want to be in that small circle of 25,000 people that have that card.” Womack also wants to be a guiding light for kids in a way he never saw when he was coming up. “I’ve been playing for 27 years down the street at Chester Washington Golf Course,” he said, “and I can’t remember anyone at Chester Washington that’s been PGA certified. That’s a travesty.”
Aside from teaching at Maggie Hathaway, Womack and Mike Williams both work as instructors at Los Amigos Golf Course in nearby Downey. Chip is also the coach of the boys’ and girls’ teams at Saint Monica High School, and he runs a nonprofit that helps tutor kids. He has a 16-year-old daughter who dreams of being a doctor. Think about that for a second. Chip Womack, a grown man and father who has been teaching golf for more than a decade at two golf courses, who also coaches boys’ and girls’ golf teams and runs a non-profit, will need to spend more than two years and roughly $10,000 to get his PGA certification. And he’s not doing it for him; he’s doing it for the kids.
Professionals such as Womack have been serving golf’s most neglected faces for decades. A “Caucasians only” clause, enforced by the PGA of America until 1961, prevented people who look like Chip from being “professionals,” but it didn’t stop them from providing for their communities and their people. Womack doesn’t count among the fewer than 200 African American members of the PGA today, but he should. And he’s not the only pro serving the underserved. Ten miles away at Rancho Park, Steven Vilts has been teaching for more than 40 years. Vilts also happens to be one of the few published African-American golf instructors.
There are hundreds of Chip Womacks and Steven Viltses in cities across America at facilities not traditionally served by the PGA of America but are served by professionals, nonetheless. One would think the PGA could create a way to offer membership to professionals with this experience and of this caliber. One would hope, I should say. (Whether the pros would accept is another question.)
The PGA would do well to consider a fast track for people such as Womack. Find a way to quickly grant them Class A membership for the decades of work they’ve put in to make this game better for so many people from communities largely ignored by the PGA. That opinion may not be popular with the PGA membership, but let’s remember we are at a unique place in time in this profession and the PGA of America needs people like Womack far more than Chip needs the PGA of America.
In a recent Golf Digest report, Shane Ryan brought to light the realities and struggles of being a club professional. The picture it painted is fairly bleak. These are not the halcyon days of the golf profession. Ryan quoted PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh, who at the 2021 annual meeting spoke of “a lack of a pipeline of talent to replace our aging population.” Maybe a way to fill that pipeline with talented people is to look long and hard at a curriculum that in many ways is dated in a golf environment that is rapidly changing.
Technology has diminished many touch points golfers have with professionals. Tee times, lessons, even club fittings can all be done online. And without a PGA professional. The aging of the PGA’s membership is an issue, burnout is another, and so is potential obsolescence.
From 2001 to ’08 I worked as a club professional. I know this world intimately. I started at the bottom, splitting time between the starter shack, bag room and pro shop at Oak Ridge Country Club in Minneapolis making $15 an hour. I had a great mentor in John Miller, who wasn’t necessarily a fan of the PGA education process, “I could run this place with a shoe box, a notebook and a pencil,” he would often say. Working for Miller was an old-school education that couldn’t be captured in books.
Miller is a great pro, but the best I ever worked for was Lisa Masters. “It’s all about managing people,” she would tell me. A former captain of the Iowa Hawkeyes golf team, Masters worked her way up the ladder from coaching parks and rec golf leagues to running the park district’s golf operation, all while raising three kids as a single mother. She has never been a PGA professional, and much like Womack, the PGA needs people like Lisa Masters more than Lisa Masters needs the PGA.
I bring up Miller and Masters to highlight a simple point: In a challenging employment climate, we should be looking to people on the fringes of the golf business and outside of it who will excel when given a chance. Both have a knack for finding people outside the lines and giving them a shot. People like me who had passion but came to the career later in life. People like Courtney Campbell, who rose to be one of the few female PGA professionals in British Columbia. People who frankly wouldn’t have gotten so much as an interview at the club down the street because they didn’t look the part.
The PGA of America also needs to look within the organization and ask its leading professionals at the top clubs in the country to be creative when making hiring decisions. The talent is out there; it just might not look like you might expect.
The PGA curriculum is important, but so is real-world experience. Just as “test out” options exist for LPGA professionals (like Masters) to obtain PGA membership, what about creating an evaluation criteria that considers contributions made to golf, and also considers the generational impact of sexism and racist policy?
Let’s be grateful the PGA of America recognizes this imbalance among its membership. Also, we can be hopeful that brave leaders such as Sandy Cross aren’t afraid to shake things up. Let’s address the inflexibility of the curriculum. Let’s remember that opportunity is something organizations create. And let’s be progressive in recognizing that a debt is owed by the PGA of America to minorities and women.
It’s time to find immediate and impactful solutions to change the landscape of the PGA of America. Hundreds of men and women like Chip Womack could teach the PGA of America a thing or two. It’s time to get them on board.