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Golf’s Historic Problems With Race Aren’t Getting Better

The golf world has long been a bastion of whiteness in America, and the number of Black golfers only continues to fall. Why? And are steps really being taken to make the game more diverse?

Ringer illustration

“Go to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, or any city with a public course and you will see colored players enjoying the game. They are not yet as proficient as their white brethren, but they are progressing rapidly.” —William DeHart Hubbard, Pittsburgh Courier, 1925

“We have the right to associate or not to associate with whomever we choose. The country club is our home and we pick and choose who we want.” —Hall Thompson, founder of Shoal Creek Country Club, 1990

“It’s the golf industry that has a problem.” —Wendell Haskins, former diversity director of the PGA of America, 2020

Far beyond the peaks and adjoining foothills of the Alleghenies, in the village of East Canton, Ohio, lie all 130 acres of Clearview Golf Club. The tract is an outlier in the sport, to say the least. Culled from what used to be a dilapidated dairy farm, Clearview is nestled among a sea of grain silos and amber crops. It has been open for the better part of a century and is part of the National Register of Historic Places. None of that, though, is cause for the course’s singularity. The people who own it are.

A Black man named Bill Powell built Clearview in 1946, after he fought the Nazis across Europe and was rejected—because of his race—by both the banks charged with distributing the benefits of the GI Bill and the myriad golf courses of eastern Ohio. Powell loved the game. Picked it up when he was a kid caddying at a course near his home in Minerva. While he was stationed in Scotland during World War II, the locals encouraged soldiers from the United States to hit the links whenever they pleased. Then he came home and was reminded to whom golf belonged. Not men like him. Not on this land. So he decided—a word that bears repeating, given how improbable this decision was at the time—that if the sport would not have him, he would make his own stage.

“When he seeded the course he just had a hand seeder that he turned,” Renee Powell says of her father’s labor, ambling along the grounds as she speaks. “He literally walked back and forth every step of this fairway, every fairway, to seed it.”

It is a bright and unseasonably warm March morning at Clearview. Renee, the youngest of Bill and Marcella Powell’s three children and the second of eight Black women ever to be full-time members of the LPGA Tour, is beside the first tee box. She’s wearing a seal gray fleece, beige hat, indigo-hued mask, turquoise socks, and matte black sneakers. As she walks, she reflects on her father’s legacy and vision.

Facing in from its front entrance, Clearview appears in two halves; a one-lane driveway that unfurls down its center splits the course like an asphalt spine. Before it was tamed in the 1940s, this loping stretch of land was an empty canvas, but Renee says Bill always knew exactly where he would start. He used tools and an old Jeep with a plow affixed to the front to groom the earth, and drudged even more with his hands and feet. In the glare of day and the cover of night, he manicured every green, shouldered every stone, planted every tree. It is in this handcrafted world that Renee, now 74, grew up.

Golf had her hooked by the time she could stand. In elementary school, Renee would hit anywhere between 500 and 1,000 balls a day. She was a prodigy by almost any measure. By age 12 she began competing against adults in the United Golfers Association, the Negro Leagues of golf. By 15, with the encouragement and support of her parents, she integrated USGA events. At 21, she made the LPGA Tour—the second Black woman ever to do so after tennis star Althea Gibson—and at 27 she got her first and only LPGA win at the 1973 Kelly Springfield Open in Brisbane, Australia. No matter how often or how well she played, though, she was frequently reminded of the peril that her color and body brought her.

“I remember the very first time I ever got a threat letter,” Powell told me during a conversation in October. “I went to our tournament director and I remember him saying there wasn’t anything he could do. And I thought, ‘Somebody’s going to try to kill me. I’m away from home. And I’m out here by myself.’”

Golf means something in the American psyche; it is greater than a pastime, greater than an industry. It’s no coincidence that golf courses are staples of country clubs from the steaming bogs of South Florida to the Pacific coast. There is a reason the PGA Tour was the last major American sports organization to desegregate, and a reason the LPGA Tour has yet to see the total number of Black participants in its history touch double digits.

Out of the roughly 360 years that golf has existed on American soil, the sport has worshipped at the altar of racial segregation for all but a sixth of them. Today, there are only two Black men in the top 100 worldwide rankings and only one Black woman in the top 300 worldwide rankings. Since the day that Tiger Woods—the most important golfer of all time and a man of Thai, white, Black, and Native American descent—burst onto the PGA Tour in 1996, there have been fewer Black golfers than there were in the 25 years beforehand. The data shows that golf’s dearth of Black professionals continues to metastasize.

Pushed, like many institutions across the country, by the 2020 deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the ensuing protests that spread across the nation, the sport has pledged to change. Shortly after Floyd’s death, PGA commissioner Jay Monahan released an internal memo urging his colleagues to engage in an “open and compassionate” dialogue about the “hardships and injustices that have and continue to impact the African-American community.” A week later, organizers and players at the Charles Schwab Challenge held a minute of silence to honor Floyd’s memory. In September, Monahan said he expects the tour to raise more than $100 million in funding for “racial and social injustice causes” over the next 10 years. And in November, it was announced that Lee Elder, the first Black man to play in the Masters, will be an honorary starter at this week’s tournament in Augusta, Georgia.

These are far from the first times that golf’s governing bodies, courses, or corporations have postured toward reform. None of the previous attempts have resulted in enduring change.

In my conversation with Renee in the fall, she told me that representatives from the LPGA had contacted her in June. They had decided, without her knowledge or approval, to create a grant in her name that would, according to the program’s website, go to “LPGA [and/or] USGA Girls Golf programs that are inclusive of Black communities as part of their initiatives.” She says that she was called the day before this grant was announced, and had virtually no input on its design. In a statement, the LPGA said, “The intent was to honor and preserve Renee’s lifetime contributions to golf. We acknowledge the Renee Powell Fund came together quickly and without a lot of advanced conversation with Renee. Our notes indicate discussing the idea with her on June 15, the [fundraising drive] was announced on June 17 and conducted on June 20. Renee has shared her displeasure with her initial engagement and the team involved apologized for the hasty process and committed to do better.”

“They’re raising money for the LPGA, and they’re using my name doing it,” Powell said in October. “People think that they’re giving money to me, to us, and the fund [to keep Clearview open], and it’s going to the LPGA.”

A member of the organization for more than 50 years, Powell said that she had no desire to pick bones with the LPGA, and now considers the grant to be an honor. But she was initially offended by the lack of forethought.

“I did say to them, ‘My name is my brand and it would have been nice if you would have at least asked me. I would have said yes, but ... is that something you just would’ve done to Nancy Lopez or to Annika [Sörenstam]? Would you not have asked them first?’”

For the entirety of golf’s existence, men and women like the Powells have exerted, endured, and bloomed in the shadow of the sport. Despite what it may seem, they are not aliens to golf. They are inheritants. And yet to be Black in this world is to voluntarily enter into an unceasing and unwinding state of doubt, mistreatment, and exclusion. This is etched into the sport. This is why it looks as it does today. If golf is to transform, it must first face the inescapable and foundational truth that while it has meant many things over the years—money, power, leisure—it has above all meant whiteness.

Ford Ladies’ Classic golf tournament
Renee Powell at the Ladies European Tour Ford Ladies’ Classic in May 1983
David Cannon/Allsport/Getty Images

Augusta’s Fruitlands nursery was originally built to produce an abundant fall harvest of apples, peaches, and pears, but famed golfer Bobby Jones and his business partner Clifford Roberts bought it in 1931 for the land’s suitability for fairways and greens. Designed by the Irish immigrant and horticulturalist Dennis Redmond and constructed, at least in part, by the labor of two people he enslaved, Fruitlands was an all-American spectacle. By 1933, Jones and Roberts had re-tilled the former nursery, renamed it Augusta National Golf Club, and opened it to a select few. They also launched an annual tournament to showcase the majestic grounds. The invitational came to be the crown jewel of the young sport. It was called the Masters.

From Augusta National’s inception, Roberts and Jones did everything they could to ensure the course’s culture reflected the social mores of Jim Crow. They were committed to branding it as the epicenter of Southern beauty, prosperity, and repose. Black people were to be present only if they were subservient. “As long as I’m alive,” Roberts once said of his course, “all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be Black.”

It is no accident that this place grew to become the mecca of American golf. The history of the game is inseparable from the tactics and appeal of white supremacy. When the Scots of Bunce Island—a small islet off the coast of Sierra Leone that slave traders used as a recharging station—built a golf course in the mid-1700s, they relied on their chattel not only to tend to the ground, but also to serve as their caddies. In the United States, free and enslaved Black people both designed and manicured courses in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they were almost universally outlawed from playing. Dr. George Grant, a Black man who was the inventor of the golf tee, was forced to play rounds in his backyard after all the courses in Boston ran him off because of his race. If the climate was hospitable, he’d invite other Black golfers over to play the makeshift holes.

When John Shippen, the first Black man to participate in USGA events, first showed up at the U.S. Open in 1896, his white competitors threatened to quit. In the years after Shippen retired in 1924, USGA tournaments frequently barred Black golfers from entering, and the PGA implemented an explicit ban on Black competitors. The PGA’s Caucasian-only clause would last until 1961, more than a decade after most other major American sports leagues had integrated.

The path to desegregation was littered with white resistance. In 1928, a group of Black men agreed to purchase a golf course in Corona, California. The deal was scuttled after the local KKK burned a cross on the front lawn of the property. In his 2017 book Game of Privilege, author Lane Demas documented 29 lawsuits across 16 states between 1941 and 1970, all of which attempted to force private clubs and municipalities to open their courses to Black players. Even as recently as the 1970s, public courses around the country leased their land to private clubs in an attempt to stave off integration. When this failed, some would raise their rates exorbitantly, or lie outright about whether they were private or public.

There are countless stories like those of the six Black men who went to Gillespie Park Golf Club in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1955. Upon their arrival, a clubhouse attendant told them that the course was closed to the public. Gillespie was technically owned by the city, but the municipality had agreed to lease it to a private white golf club for just one dollar annually in an effort to avoid integration. Despite the official’s warning, the sextet played the entire front nine. “We’re out here for a cause—the cause of democracy,” one of the men said when management tried to stop them.

Later that day, each of the objectors were arrested. A few months afterward, they were charged with trespassing. All six were convicted, though the governor commuted their sentences. An appeals court eventually ruled that Gillespie had to desegregate; just two weeks before the course was set to reopen, its clubhouse was burned to the ground. The city of Greensboro chose to sell the club rather than rebuild and integrate it.

Fundamental to the concept of private clubs is the right to dictate who is worthy of access. What makes a place like Augusta National a treasure in golf is not merely its azaleas and dogwoods. What made Gillespie’s course worthless was not the land on which it sat. The value of these places lies in them being manifestations of their members’ proclivities. They are worlds that appear, both in layout and makeup, as their owner’s desire. And the proliferation of private courses cannot be divorced from these clubs’ roots as the first and last refuges against the encroaching specter of multiracial society.

There is no way of understanding modern golf without understanding this legacy; that the game became the game, at least in part because of its overwhelming commitment to uphold a particular purity within it. There is no era nor version of golf that is not definitionally exclusive, tribal, and closed off. The sport’s existence is irreducible from these features. Even in those fleeting moments when golf has appeared on the precipice of change, it always has been just a step away from tumbling back to the depths from which it came.

Augusta National Archive
Jim Dent at the Masters in 1986
Augusta National/Getty Images

By the time Jim Dent was 15 years old, he was already a veteran caddy at Augusta National and nearby Augusta Country Club. “You had to love it to be out there,” Dent says of the job. “Walking 18 holes, finding the balls … you had to learn your manners.” Sometimes he’d get paired with white golfers who’d treat him like a punching bag. Once, during the Masters, Dent remembers a player lighting into him just for picking up a bag of clubs the wrong way. But the money was steady. He made $3 for a day’s work, maybe even $4 on the weekends.

For a Black boy growing up in Augusta, golf was as present as the breeze and just as hard to catch. When Dent was in elementary school in the 1940s, he dreamed of visiting the nearby clubs, but knew it was safer to stay put. This was Dixie, after all, and those courses weren’t for Black folks. Besides, gamblers prowled each fairway, and it couldn’t get back to his parents that he had been around their kind. Dent was one of six children, and his mother and father were fair but strict. Gambling and troublemaking they would not abide. Caddying finally gave him an in. Bring home some money and sneak in some rounds. When the crowds died down, he and his coworkers had no qualms about seizing their chance on the holes.

“We played 12 and 13 in the back because they couldn’t catch us that close to the woods. We didn’t think nothing of it,” Dent says. “We knew what we had to do to go play golf. That’s probably one of the reasons that you get into something, when you can’t do it the way you want to do it.”

Dent moved to New Jersey in the 1950s so that he’d have the chance to play more courses. His playing career took off, first up north and then around the country. He joined the UGA and won the national title in 1969. Around that time, Black golfers had started to cross over to the PGA Tour. With the Caucasian-only clause on its deathbed following a series of civil rights lawsuits, he had his shot. Dent qualified for the tour in 1970 after winning the Tucson Open. He knew what to expect; white golf had been trying to keep him off fairways his whole life. He says his competitors were usually fine with his presence, but others around the game were less welcoming. “When you’d go to the tournament to qualify, if you were there the first time, they’d say, ‘Who are you caddying for?’”

Lee Elder had similar experiences. He started caddying in 1945, at age 12, for Tenison Golf Club near his hometown of Dallas. This was right after the Great Depression, and even for a young Elder there were mouths to feed. He was the last of 10 children, and times were hard—everyone had to pitch in. “It wasn’t a [home] that you could write about,” Elder says of his family’s house back then.

If the pay pulled him into golf, though, the game itself is what kept Elder coming back. Tenison was the only course for Black people in the area, and the more time he spent on the job, the more he was drawn to the tricks of the trade. “You have to think about the things that’s going to be ahead of you,” Elder remembers telling himself, “and think about what the value of it’s going to be for you.”

After his father died in World War II and his mother passed a few years later, he was adopted by his aunt and eventually moved to California. Golf was the one thing he knew he could take with him. Under the mentorship of Ted Rhodes, a longtime UGA star and private coach to the famed boxer Joe Louis, Elder worked on his game for the better part of a decade. He took home UGA championships in 1963, 1964 (the same year as Renee Powell), 1966, and 1967, and immediately qualified for the PGA Tour when the field finally opened up to Black golfers. Over the next 10 years, he won four times on tour and earned a groundbreaking invitation to compete in the Masters, making him the first Black man to ever play the event.


Trailblazing, as always, was perilous work. Elder rented two houses in Georgia on his first journey to Augusta in 1975—he’d been getting death threats for months, and bounced between the two properties so nobody would know where he was staying. Even the nature of his tournament invitation was soured by the climate of the sport. He should’ve qualified years earlier after winning the 1971 Nigerian Open, but Masters chairman Clifford Roberts refused to let him in. Elder’s congressional representative, Herman Badillo, nearly brokered a deal, but the golfer nixed it out of respect for all the Black competitors who’d been outlawed by Augusta before him. His shot finally came in ’75, and he played the tournament five more times over the next seven years, finishing as high as 17th. “That little ball can make you or break you,” Elder says.

There wouldn’t be stories like Dent’s and Elder’s without the efforts of Black golfers to build parallel structures alongside a world that had spent nearly a century trying to keep them out. “We helped out each other,” Elder says. “If there was someone that did not have a good tournament and had a hard time getting to the next place, the winners always helped him. … That’s what was so unique about the UGA, no one ever went without having a chance to play.”

But with desegregation, the pathways that Black golfers had once turned to out of necessity faded away. Between 1967 and 1981, 19 Black golfers crossed over to the PGA and LPGA tours. Without having top-flight competitors to enter into majority Black events, the UGA’s revenue began to plummet. It dissolved by the late ’70s. Golf’s Negro Leagues appeared to be, if not an unneeded relic, than an unnecessary route to the sport’s biggest stage.

The past 50 years of the sport have proved the folly in that calculus. The number of new Black competitors on the men’s tour dipped from 12 in the 1960s and 11 in the 1970s to just three in both the 1980s and 1990s. White golf opening the game to Black talent without reforming its landscape to accommodate and value Black players is akin to unlocking a vault only to find a new way to seal it.

It is impossible to say whether the sport’s power structure set out to undermine the gains of Black golfers in the post–civil rights era. What’s undeniable is it did little to stop any short-term advances from vanishing.

Augusta National Archive
Lee Elder at the Masters in 1979
Augusta National/Getty Images

The camera angle was Dutch. In 1978, on Westinghouse’s nationally syndicated Mike Douglas Show, a 2-year-old Tiger Woods waddled out on stage. The tyke initially hid behind the leg of his father, Earl Woods. Then he stepped up to an artificial tee, blasted a ball out of camera, and held a pose like what he’d just done was nothing.

This was not the moment that Tiger became Tiger. It is, however, a glimpse into the start of that process. Woods would grow to be the most dominant golfer the world has ever seen; the golf universe would construct his myth as the prodigy who became a machine. As the son of a Black father and a Thai mother, he was also branded a harbinger of change. Tiger was not only expected to be golf’s biggest star, but to bring about an unparalleled shift in its demographics. “He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before,” Earl famously said of his son during a 1996 speech.

Tiger fulfilled close to all of the predictions about his athletic greatness, and he flummoxed the hagiography. But he never did bring about a new age in the composition of golf. Instead, the sport has gotten less Black since the turn of the century. “The data doesn’t support an upswing in actual [Black] participation because of Tiger,” says Michael Cooper, a former southern regional director of The First Tee, a nonprofit organization run through the World Golf Foundation that has for decades been the primary recipient of the PGA, LPGA, and USGA’s diversity spending. “They started making the golf industry reports in 2000. Every report, the one in 2000, the one in 2005, the ’08, the ’10, the ’15, every one of them said that the golf industry will suffer if it doesn’t solve the problem of minority participation.

“They’ve never solved it and it has suffered. Nobody in the golf industry will say [that], though.”

Cooper spent 13 years working for The First Tee and served for a year as the director of diversity at the World Golf Foundation. Today, he teaches at Springfield College in Tampa. He says the members of golf’s establishment often make the case that they already invest in attracting Black players to the game. Eventually, by this measure, a flood of diverse talent is bound to envelop the men’s and women’s tours. Yet Cooper’s research reveals how this analysis is equally specious and incomplete. Out of the approximately 24 million recreational golfers in the U.S., less than 3 percent are Black.

“If 3 percent play, what is a realistic number that we should expect to play well enough to make it to the pro rank?” Cooper asks. He believes that exposing kids to the game is a half-measure, a first step that fails to ensure underrepresented groups stay involved. It takes little institutional upheaval to bring Black children to a golf course; keeping them there would mean reformulating the entire culture, business, and pipeline of the sport.

In the years since Tiger’s debut in 1996, funding disparities have developed between The First Tee and other grassroots organizations that promote Black involvement and development. “There’s no resources to draw from,” Cooper laments. Matters are worse when it comes to Black employment and entrepreneurship. In 2015 and 2018, Cooper conducted surveys of over 60,000 workers within the industry, with the hope of calculating the percentage of Black women employed in all phases. The results were beyond paltry: He found they made up barely 1 percent of total workers.

When statistics such as these are provided to white leaders around the sport, Cooper says, the response is often evasion. The Ringer sent the PGA of America an email with Cooper’s numbers; it did not respond to a request for comment. And perhaps no other sport is as closely associated with its proximity to economic power and entrepreneurship. That plans to diversify golf tend to eschew real financial stakes is no accident. “Inclusion means we’re included in the $84 billion industry,” Cooper says. “Not that we are the consumers, always the consumers, to make it go up.”

Gary Grandison, the head coach of both the men’s and women’s golf teams at Texas Southern University, describes the pipeline through which the sport’s governing bodies encourage Black participation as a “boy scout business.” “The emphasis is on values, teaching values through golf,” he says. “But it isn’t about developing players, true tournament development.”

Whereas white golfers are given access to infrastructure, practice rounds at exclusive country clubs, and one-on-one mentorship from professionals, Grandison says that young Black golfers are often treated as novelties. With fewer tournament rounds under their belts, they are apt to fall behind their white counterparts, making them less likely to be recruited to play collegiately and thus less likely to make the professional ranks. Even the golf coaches at historically Black colleges and universities will often turn to white players, who can produce higher immediate dividends on the course due to their advantages in precollegiate training.

“I have a team right now that’s majority Black, but we have to get better,” says D’Wayne Robinson, the head coach of the Alabama A&M men’s team. “So I’m recruiting better players to go along with the kids that I have now. Which may or may not look like the team that I have now.”

Add it all up, and Black competitive golfers are at risk of falling victim to a cycle in which they are underdeveloped because of a lack of training and resources, under-recruited because of a lack of development, and unable to pursue professional opportunities because of a lack of collegiate exposure. Even those who have the tools necessary to compete at the highest levels still have to navigate golf’s oppressive culture, in which appearance, outlook, and conduct are all regulated to uniformity.

“What does it look like for someone to be their authentic self at a golf space?” says Vincent Johnson, a Black former college golfer at Oregon State who’s now the head of the municipal golf system in Portland. “[If] I have to kind of stand this way and sound this way and dress this way and that’s all kind of built in there through years, that’s not going to get broken down without some real genuine authentic effort that people can start to believe in and trust.”

Mariah Stackhouse knows the hegemony of golf all too well. The only Black woman active on the LPGA Tour, she has been exposed to the sport’s unbending ecosystem since she first picked up a club at age 2. Her father convinced her to play at Browns Mill Golf Course, a municipal tract near their home in Riverdale, Georgia, as a kid by bribing her with ice cream and McDonald’s after each round. When she started to show uncommon promise on the course, both parents were quick to make sure she never forgot who she was and where she came from. Around the time Stackhouse started entering Georgia State Golf Association tournaments at age 13, her parents made her repeat an affirmation at least once a day. The message was to always love “the Black skin that God gave me.”

“I wonder if a lot of that had to do with the fact that I was growing in a predominantly white sport and they didn’t want to see me lose a bit of myself and my Blackness,” Stackhouse says, “or try to push it back and take on the environment that was around me.”

Stackhouse’s family was middle class, and she says they scrounged together enough money to enter her in travel tournaments with occasional aid from her community. At school, teachers encouraged her and let her miss class to play all over the state. Stackhouse’s parents guarded her at courses as if each were a lion’s den. “I don’t know if they might have picked up on things that I didn’t, but it was always very clear to me I wasn’t really allowed to wander about in the clubhouse or anywhere without them,” she says.

Stackhouse doesn’t like to harp on the past, and she doesn’t have any horror stories—at least not that she’s willing to share. What she will say is her path in golf seems impossible to replicate. Everything had to line up just right, and even then getting to this point was a coin flip.

“I think about the support I had and what my parents did, and looking at Renee’s dad and what he did,” Stackhouse says. “Those things just aren’t necessarily possible and won’t happen for everyone. What’s the path then?”

LPGA Drive On Championship - Round One
Mariah Stackhouse at the LPGA Drive On Championship in March
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There are people actively fighting to reform and re-create the institutions that once supported Black golfers. The downfall of groups like the UGA was not the only change that occurred in the wake of golf’s mid-century multiracial wave. A shift in caddying—away from local and Black caddies, and toward permanent and white ones—has similarly limited the opportunities for aspiring Black pros. “When there were [Black] caddies, they were playing on top-level golf courses,” says Kenneth Bentley, the CEO of the Advocates Pro Golf Association, a circuit dedicated to increasing the number of Black players on the PGA Tour. “Our guys were playing on municipals.”

Bentley formed the APGA in 2010 with the hopes of re-creating an all-Black golf circuit. Before joining the organization, many of APGA’s competitors relied on unfitted clubs and had little access to the virtual technology like TrackMan that has become a staple at almost every level of contemporary golf. The APGA provides players with these resources and more. The PGA Tour chips in to fund many of its courses, but Bentley says that at least 75 percent of its contributions come from individual Black donors. “We haven’t gotten a lot of support from the golf industry. None from the USGA, none of the golf manufacturers have really contributed ... I can’t understand why the USGA hasn’t,” Bentley says. (In a statement, the USGA said that it “is currently not invested in player development—that’s a focus and priority for the professional tours, and that would include the development of any specific community of golfers with tour aspirations. We focus on areas driven through our organizational mission and priorities.”)

When asked whether the group will be able to effect real change without the material support of golf’s major governing bodies, Bentley is cautiously optimistic. “It’s kind of like America in general. If you ask me does America want to change, I think there’s people in America that really are passionate about changing. … But there’s also people that don’t want to.”

Ty DeLavallade is more critical. A former golf apparel manufacturer, he purchased the trademark rights to the UGA in 2020 with aims of revitalizing it and creating an all-Black golf academy and tournament system. The group hosted its first competition in the winter, and DeLavallade says that he’s had multiple conversations with top PGA executives about increasing the number of Black competitors on tour. He describes these dialogues as a step in the “right direction,” but wonders whether they will lead to lasting change. When the cameras and phones are on, progress appears to be made. “Then you send them an email to follow up, there’s no reply back. We’re just on the phone to share our ideas of where we want to go, and then you take them and do something else with it.”

In a statement, the PGA Tour said, “Since our introductory call in October with Ty DeLavallade, UGA executive director, and Andy Walker, director of the UGA Academy and player development, we have participated in quarterly follow-up discussions with them to learn more about their progress and plans ... and efforts to conduct grassroots programming, professional staffing, and capital fundraising. In addition, they shared information with us about the state-of-art player development center they are seeking to build. We are inspired by the passion and enthusiasm organizations like UGA have for our sport.”

That the PGA Tour expects to raise $100 million in funding to combat racial and social injustice appears to be a positive development, but organizers across the sport are skeptical of the plan’s ultimate utility. In November, Sports Illustrated published a report on Wendell Haskins, the PGA of America’s former director of diversity, that documented the pattern with which the organization’s predominantly white leadership consistently marginalized and undermined its highest-ranking Black official. Haskins’s work to redress the structural inequities carved into the modern game was rebuffed by his superiors at nearly every turn. A number of the organizers, coaches, and players interviewed for this article described a similar atmosphere of marginalization in dealing with golf’s governing bodies.

“The pledge we made in September commits a minimum of $100 million over 10 years to support the work of nonprofit organizations who are leading efforts to advance equity and inclusion in the communities where we play,” the PGA Tour said in its statement. “This Tour- and tournament-led partnership is rooted in our mission and holds us accountable to building and strengthening programs and partnerships that grow our sport, our business, and our community impact.”

On Wednesday, Lee Elder will join Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus as honorary starters at the Masters (an action once proposed by Haskins and shelved immediately). Whether this is a symbol of reform and signifies a shift in how the sport views not just its Black legends but also its Black community remains to be seen. When asked whether golf’s leaders truly grasp the magnitude of what he, Dent, and the Powells shouldered for the game, Elder pauses for a beat before answering. “Some of them do and some of them don’t,” he says. “I get a chance to talk to an awful lot of them. I can hear in the things that they are expressing to me whether or not they felt that I had really made a contribution.”

He knows better than anyone that no tournament encapsulates golf’s beauty and horror, promise and futility, quite like the Masters. In advance of his return to the course this week, he’s been reflecting on all the steps that he took along the way. “There’s going to be quite a number of things on my mind,” he says when asked what he’ll be thinking during the ceremony. He laughs, then continues. “But I’m going to do my best to have them off of mind by the time I make that walk to the first tee.”

2009 PGA DSA Winner Bill Powell Photo Sesssion
Bill Powell at Clearview Golf Club in 2009

A patch of forest flanks Clearview Golf Club on its western side, but to the north farmlands peek out of nearly every crevice. If the course looks like a crude circle from above, then the woodlands form a three-story-high wall of trees along one half, while the massive sprawl of agricultural terra firma frames the other. It’s not that the areas surrounding Clearview are jarring in contrast to the course. It’s that, ecologically speaking, they feel separate.

The culture of East Canton carries much the same waft of difference. The village seems to have more visible Confederate flags than Black people. Osnaburg Township, which encompasses East Canton, has a population of 5,585. According to the 2019 census, 96.3 percent are white and 1.5 percent are Black. Of the township’s 2,894 ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election, 781 went to Joe Biden, while 2,059 went to Donald Trump.

Clearview protrudes amid this landscape as something like a grassy, Black-owned oasis. It could not have been easy for the Powells to carve this out. That family with that much land, less than a lifetime separating them from the days when they would have been regarded as property just across the Ohio River.

As Renee summits an inclining fairway, she dodges a run of questions about what this must have been like for her family. Her advice is to “read history from 1946” to find an answer. After venturing farther up, she slows a few feet from the top. “I didn’t talk about it a lot with my parents,” she says. “They would say some things, but I don’t think my dad ever really talked about it. So I don’t talk about it.” Then she walks ahead alone.

During peak golf season, Powell works 16-hour shifts at Clearview for seven days a week, mostly serving as the course golf pro. Her ringtone is a bagpipe recording, and on this March day it blares three times in less than an hour. By her own admission, she is overworked. Yet when asked why she does it—this was her father’s dream, not hers—she is unwavering. “My family was here,” she says. “The golf course is here.”

The third and final call comes from a group of friends who are planning to go on a cross-country road trip. They apparently want to make a pilgrimage to Clearview. She is a bit taken aback by the gesture, at least initially. Then the subject of conversation changes to journeys she has made. There is a tiny strip of land to the east of Dakar, Senegal, called Gorée Island, that she visited long ago. It once served as the last stop for thousands of captive Africans before they were sent off in the slave trade.

“When you think of what people went through, and how they were treated, what they went through when they got here, and how they were loaded in the ships. Oh my gosh. And when people died, they’d just throw them overboard,” Powell says, ceasing her stride outright with that last word. “You asked me about why I’m here. Why? It’s all of those things. It’s all the people whose shoulders we all stand on.”

The highest point on Clearview Golf Club is the 16th green. Beneath the hole, a disparate set of hills dip and wane, a stretch of earthy dough filled with lumps of air. On the side closest to the Powells’ farmhouse residence, an antenna strapped to the top of a thin, rusted tower sways in the wind. This is the same view that Bill Powell fell in love with back in 1946. Renee says despite the toil that went into making Clearview—the hurt, the love, the time—what gives the course its magic is the land itself, the slope of the knolls. It was always so beautiful. Just needed a little fixing.

“He looked down here, he could see the rolling plains,” Powell says, overlooking the space that her family calls home. “It’s not real steep, not mountains, but you can see a lot and you can see a long ways.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the USGA once implemented an explicit ban on Black golfers. While many USGA tournaments barred Black golfers from competing between the 1920s and 1950s, the association itself never adopted a formal policy.

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