The African-Americanization of Golf

by Steve Sailer

National Post of Canada, Friday, October 1, 1999

Golf, invented by the Scots and spread across North America by the WASP business elite, has always emphasized self-restraint and a slightly stuffy brand of courtesy. So, what was the traditionally stolid American Ryder Cup team doing last Sunday rolling around on the 17th green of Brookline, Massachusetts' blue-blooded The Country Club, gang-hugging like an NFL squad that's just won the Super Bowl?

After Justin Leonard, in front of the most pumped-up crowd in golf history, sank a miraculous putt to put the U.S. on the verge of defeating Europe, his teammates charged across the green to congratulate him. They even may have -- I'm aghast to report -- stepped on the putting line of Jose Maria Olazabal, who, visibly rattled, then missed a 25-foot putt that could have kept Europe alive.

While you may have found this spontaneous display of joy on the links charming, the Old World reacted as if the Americans had bludgeoned Olazabal with their sand wedges. Europe's assistant captain, Sam Torrance, sputtered, "It was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in my life." A spokesman for Tony Blair, the British prime minister, complained, "Mr. Blair caught it on the news and could not believe that all those golfers could run on to the green. He did agree with Sam Torrance."

Are we witnessing the Decline and Fall of Golf? Of course not. Golf will only become an even hotter entertainment commodity now that the U.S. stars have finally begun showing us the passions they so long kept bottled up inside. As one English columnist grudgingly admitted, "I found myself feeling faintly jealous of America's capacity for emotion."

The Ryder Cup Riot provides another example of what most distinguishes the United States' world-conquering popular culture from Britain's, or even from Canada's: its exuberant, extroverted, expressive African-American tinge. Novelist Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), critic Albert Murray, and their disciple trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, have argued that rather than merely being a pitiful victim of racism, the black man's defiantly open style of self-expression, emotional yet manly, makes him the most distinctively representative of Americans.

During the '80s and '90s, when African-American-dominated sports like basketball and football soared in global popularity, with annual salaries reaching as high as Michael Jordan's $33-million (US), golf languished (relatively speaking). Through 1996, no golfer had won even a measly $2-million (US) in one year on the PGA tour. In an era that worships in-your-face trash-talking superstars, it didn't help that golfers are probably the most introverted of top athletes. When asked why they got interested in golf as boys, many pros answer, "Because I could play by myself." And the game requires so much emotional control that most players don't hit their prime until their mid-30s.

The forces that lead to the Brookline Brouhaha began building on April 13, 1997. Golf's New Golden Age started the day Tiger Woods, watched by a record number of TV viewers, won the Masters by 12 shots. This instantly validated golf as a real sport in the public's mind. Although few will openly admit it, most people now assume that blacks tend to be naturally better athletes than whites, and thus if your game doesn't have a black as its top star, it's probably no more of a sport than, say, billiards.

Yet, despite the press and Nike's obsession with portraying Tiger as "black," and as the harbinger of a purported coming wave of African-American golf stars, Tiger would stubbornly remind everybody that he's twice as Asian as he is African. In fact, the black wave in big-time golf has been receding since the mid-'80s. There are now more black players on the Senior PGA tour than on the regular PGA tour. This is because, as the golf cart replaced the caddy, opportunities for poor boys to earn money on golf courses shrank. And since most new golf courses are charging $50 to $150 per round, this isn't likely to change much. Woods, though, does represent what's really the Next Big Thing: the Asian wave. Three of the top four young female players are of Asian descent, and there's a 14-year-old Californian named Henry Liaw who might be better than even Tiger was at that age.

Still, Tiger's African-American cultural heritage is a key to his popularity. He was the first to inject black macho charisma into a game moulded by Jack Nicklaus' introverted Teutonic discipline. Although from tee to hole Woods is as focused and methodical as Nicklaus, once he sinks a putt he unleashes a series of fist pumps that has galvanized into existence an entirely new set of fans for the royal and ancient game.

Woods-worship brought the NFL and NBA fan out for the Ryder Cup. In turn, the other American golfers began playing to the crowd, Woods-style. As the Americans stormed back from a huge deficit on Sunday, we witnessed the unlikely sight of the whitest man in sports, David Duval, fist-pumping and egging the crowd on like he had just had a race transplant and turned into Charles Barkley.

The downside of golf's new glamour and popularity is that drunken loud-mouths in the crowd can do far more damage at a golf tournament than they can at a basketball or football game, where everybody is yelling. But merely banning beer sales might alleviate much of this problem.

Does this African-Americanization of golf mean Old World golfers are doomed to obscurity? Well, the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin did fairly well for themselves by imitating African-Americans, so I'm sure the Europeans will be able to master their Tiger-style fist-pumps by the 2001 Ryder Cup in England.

Steve Sailer is a businessman and writer.

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