As we have gone through our process of preparing our film From the Rough for theatrical release, one question many people have asked is: why do a film about golf? Over 27 million Americans play golf, 1.3 million of them, African Americans. However, compared with the other issues African Americans have faced, golf would not be near the top of the list.
However, golf is symbolically very important to every disadvantaged population. If golf were only a recreational activity, we would not care enough to do a film about it. Golf transcends its recreational boundaries, partly because it brings people together for several hours in a relatively relaxed setting, and is often played at private clubs that assemble wealthy and powerful people. Business relationships, coaching and mentoring, and even business transactions are enhanced not just during rounds of golf, but in clubhouses, locker rooms, and dining areas. In many towns and cities, the country club is the center of social activity.
Golf is an inherently exclusive sport, because it can only be played on large patches of real estate by very few people. In fact, as golfers and their equipment have improved, the courses are longer, which increases the amount of real estate dedicated to each golfer.
Golf originated in low-maintenance natural settings in the British Isles called "links" courses. The willingness of golfers in these communities to play on links courses enabled more land to be devoted to golf and more people to play.
As golf migrated outside the British Isles, golf courses became less natural and more custom-designed. The cost of transforming and maintaining natural settings became prohibitively expensive. While golf can be played on public courses, the cost of maintaining courses and competing uses for public land have caused more privately owned courses to be built in recent decades, many of which have been built in resort or luxury planned communities.
When private courses set aside acquired land and invest significant money to build and maintain a golf course, inevitably, course access becomes very contentious. More people want access than can have it. Country clubs have attempted to organize their facilities, their amenities, their social services, and their acceptance of new members around the preferences of existing members. As a result, changing the imbedded practices of country clubs is difficult at best.
Although overt discrimination against women and people of color has ended in most clubs, the combination of low membership turnover and membership limits that enable golfers to have an enjoyable golfing experience makes the transition to more diverse memberships very slow. However, even as membership barriers disappear, cultural barriers take an agonizingly long time to go away.
The solution is not to obliterate current admissions policies or to require private clubs to put existing members at risk of losing their memberships. Club members have often invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in dues for improvements for which they deserve the opportunity to benefit. We also must honor our deeply held values of freedom of association.
However, there are creative ways to increase golf access and to the coaching, mentoring, and relationship-building benefits golf provides without upsetting existing club rules and processes.
Golf is finding ways to expand into communities in which it has not been played, such as the three-hole course in an industrial section of Cleveland in which the First Tee Foundation has created an oasis of natural beauty. There are great opportunities to reclaim vacant city land and dedicate it to teaching young people the sport's fundamentals.
Academic business programs need to find creative ways to recreate the informal coaching and mentoring for women and people of color that the country club provides to wealthy white males. Today's country clubs also have created far more affordable social memberships than a full golf membership, and can provide much of the social relationship building formerly limited to golf-based interactions.
Let's take the best of what golf offers, figure out how to break it into bite-sized pieces, and deliver it to a broader population. As our film project progressed, we realized that it had to focus on the aspirations of people who had not been given an opportunity to succeed to take full advantage of the chance that participating in a college golf and academic program would give them. It is not about golf excellence, but about being given access to what matters for life success.