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Racism in Golf Turf Management

Peter McCormick

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Racism in the golf turf industry? Say what? Yagottabekiddinme.

Of course I jest. There is no racism in golf turf.

That’s because, for all intents and purposes, there is only one race in golf turf management. In salaried positions (superintendents and assistants, and we might as well include suppliers, academics and the media as well), we are 99% white... and 99% male. Those figures are my guesstimates, but if these things are tracked somewhere — and what isn’t — I doubt I'd be more than a point or two off. A short spin around the trade show floor at GIS would easily confirm that, but maybe we should just say 95% to be safe. Either way, it's high. Way high.

And thank goodness for the professionalism and good humor of Willie Pennington over a very long career at BASF to Illustrate and contrast the point.

Women have received a lot of overdue press and recognition in recent years, but their numbers are still relatively small. Before we get sidetracked by that discussion, let's keep the focus on race rather than gender.

It would be difficult to conjure another industry with such lopsided demographics. Apparently veterinarians, farmers and lawyers come close. My neighbor, a white insurance executive whose wife is of mixed race, tells me the insurance industry is way up there, too.

That said, it would be equally difficult to find another industry as stand-up as this one, where community cooperation and mutual support trump competition every time and assholes are usually squeezed out before they even get a foothold.

Nonetheless, golf turf management lives in a lily-white bubble. Not by design, intent or any form of discrimination of our own doing, but by trickle-down from the history of the game at large, still perceived by many as the cliche of “played by old, rich white men in ugly pants”. On that end of the equation, the private clubs that have traditionally been the financial backbone of the industry have not always been particularly welcoming to people of color. That continues to change, of course, but is the root of the funnel of people leaning toward golf or turf as a career being overwhelmingly white.

... golf turf management lives in a lily-white bubble. Not by design, intent or any form of discrimination of our own doing, but by trickle-down from the history of the game at large...

Most of us got into this end of the business not from any great love of grass or green spaces or machines with blades and engines, but due to a love of the game. We played as kids, maybe caddied, somehow found ourselves in a summer job wiping clubs and saying Yessir, or with a weedeater in hand and discovered the game that way. Ironically, I’m the exception to all of that. I like grass and machines and the beauty of golf courses but stepped on a golf green for the first time in my late twenties. After masquerading as a golfer sporadically for about ten years midlife, I also discovered that I have no use for the game. But that’s just me.

If one doesn’t have that early exposure to golf, chances of being attracted to working in the business and following the requisite educational path are greatly reduced. This is being partially addressed by the First Tee and First Green, both of which get kids onto the golf course to at least experience it, but those inroads are small.

Beneath the salaried positions of management, staffing does become more diverse. Superintendents in many parts of the country rely on Latino/Hispanic workers as mainstays of seasonal staff and often go to great lengths to jump through hoops of bureaucratic red tape to get them. Welcomed and well taken care of (in contrast to agriculture), many are returnees, relatives and referrals eager for the job and the opportunity to work hard and send money back home.

(I've often wondered about the difference between Hispanic and Latino, so Googled it. Hispanic refers to people who speak Spanish and/or are descended from Spanish-speaking populations, while Latino refers to people who are from Latin America. So there you go.)

With labor supply one of the biggest challenges facing superintendents today, most would like to have more Latinos than they are able to find or legally hire. Yet there may be a pool of unemployed black men and women nearby that for various reasons goes untapped.

Admittedly, golf simply isn’t on their cultural radar. There may be general disdain among blacks for the thought of grooming the playgrounds of those rich, old white guys (The Man). Given similar wages, their comfort zone may be more at McDonald's than the country club. Even if hired by a golf course, they then face the prospect of being a very small minority in a mostly white setting. OK for some, I suppose, but likely not OK for more.

* * *

It would be difficult to imagine a scenario that would bump the Covid-19 pandemic off the top of the news cycle, but the recent killing of George Floyd under the knee of police in Minneapolis (and Ahmaud Arbury and Breonna Taylor, among too many others before that) did just that. The resurgent Black Lives Matter protests have been swift and spreading (not unlike the coronavirus itself, I guess), and continue today, over two weeks later. This has all happened before, of course, and one can only hope that this time will be different, that change will come and be lasting. It's time. All lives should matter. Each of us gets only one.

But I can't help but recall the momentum for gun control after the Parkland shootings, when those passionate young survivors crisscrossed the country appealing for change. Before that there was Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Pulse/Orlando, and on and on... and nothing has changed. At least the #BlackLivesMatter movement doesn't have the NRA and the politicians in it's pocket to contend with.

As an aside, while there can be no justification for the misguided policing in Minneapolis, it has occurred to me that in recent years police across the country seem to be continually on edge and quicker with the trigger, and I blame that on the gangs and the handguns. Get rid of the guns and suddenly things would relax a bit. In my opinion, of course.

* * *

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Looking at the big picture of racial inequality and discrimination, we in the golf course industry are really not part of the problem... but the associations and all of us as individuals can and should be part of the solution. As an industry, we can promote and recruit among minorities and make sure the welcome mat is out should they walk in the door. Establish training and apprenticeship programs for staff-level jobs, on the course and in the shop. Offer advancement opportunity to those who demonstrate the desire.

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Perfect.

As individuals, we should look in the mirror and take stock with an honest assessment of ourselves regarding attitudes and behaviors toward others, including people of color. I have long lived by the notion that a problem recognized is half solved, and we can all do better, in our own albeit small ways, to not contribute to the almost daily further debasement of our societal mores and values. We need to reverse the slide, and this is as good a time and reason as any to start. 

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This is a subject that deserves more discussion, Peter.  Thanks for having the courage to raise it in your column.

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Thank you, Jon. I usually write my columns pretty much off the cuff, but I slept on this one four or five times. Sensitive topic that deserved getting it right.
 

All of us have opportunities every day to be a little better, do a little more for others. The world would be a much better place if we did. 

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Peter,

Thank you! Appreciate the courage you exhibited in starting the discussion. We have to get uncomfortable sometime and face the problems in front of us and not put them on the back burner! One of the things I concentrated on during my career was leaving my ego at the door when I discussed business or any other topic with the person I was talking with. Most individuals who feel they have to defend their position on anything will perceive it to be a threat to what they have to say. However, if we're comfortable, the threat is diminished.

I believe many people in the golf industry practice the concept of putting others first. They have proven to be not self-centered and open minded professionals.

Willie Pennington

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When I was still a superintendent, the club a couple years ago decided to have an all employee Christmas party. All of the waitstaff, kitchen, admin and proshop employees were invited. My assistant and I were also invited but the rest of our staff of over 20 was specifically excluded. we declined to attended. Racism is alive and well at the nations country clubs.

 

steve

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In 1994, when Mandela became the President of South Africa, I lived in southern africa and visited SA once every couple of months. Following Mandela's call to white employers to mirror the overall population split in their work force, slowly we saw changes come in starting with service industries. I believe all organizations in America should strive towards this goal too.  As you said, 95% of the organizations are nowhere close to this. For a country to do well, everyone has to feel included and everyone has to prosper.

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Well said! I've been in the golf industry for 23 yrs now (I am 37) and have been on courses from Germany to  Washington, where I am now as an Assistant. I am an African American male with a Turf degree wanting to be a Superintendent, and feel as if I am extremely close to my goal. As I applied and interviewed for a few Super positions last year, I could not help but to have this thought in my mind. That I may have lost before I spoke, being a minority wanting to manage those courses. That is something that unfortunately I thought about, and felt as if I had to speak like I was a professor teaching Turf 101. I was just off as the committee members are just glaring at me (as I know they did for every other candidate) wanting to ask about my time in the industry. Long story short, I am writing this as an Assistant still, but am not discouraged. I do not blame my race for not getting the jobs, but it is a bummer that I had that thought in my head during this process. That I may need to do MORE than the guy/gal who is applying for that same job.

The main reason why I am writing this is to say that I LOVE this industry. I LOVE the game, relationships formed, and resilience it's taught me. Second, is to ENCOURAGE minorities to enter the golf industry. I ENCOURAGE those to ask their management teams what they can do to excel in this industry. With online schools programs,web/seminars, local chapter meetings etc,  education can be readily available. If we can all as Assistants, and Superintendents ENCOURAGE talented individuals of color on our teams the possibilities that this industry offers, maybe down the road we won't have this conversation. The more everyone is informed, the more positive our industry will be. Then one day country clubs can be known as the place "Where we ALL wear ugly pants!!" Thank you dearly for bringing this up and speaking about it.

I hope everyone's season is going well, stay safe and hit'em straight!!

Anthony

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Being an African American in the Golf industry has its challenges.  I started working on a Golf course when I was 17 years old now being 33 it’s all I know and love, turf is my life.  When I started in the industry all I knew was Bunkers and String trimming (I know very typical for a first year) but then two years went on and three years and so forth!! I spent so much time in the traps I became addicted to them! I told my supervisor I would like to learn more things because I decided to pursue Turf Full time, I learned course Set up then the next day I was back in Bunkers for good!  My family and friends all told me that I would have a really hard time in an industry that’s completely Full of “old fashion White people” who simply just don’t think you are intelligent enough to do anything let alone handle the many hats we as assistants and supers have.  During my first internship I was surrounded by four other interns, all whom were white.  At the time I had nine years working on a crew experience the other interns had none!  They were spraying, fertilizing while once again I had a string trimmer and a bunker rake every day.  Who puts an intern with no golf experience on a sprayer before the intern with nine years on a crew already? Being a black man the only thing that made sense was these decisions are being made clearly off race.  I felt hopeless like what do I have to do in this industry to be taught or groomed!  All I wanted was to have the same learning opportunities as my “white coworkers” I even considered getting out of the industry because of how I’ve had to look at myself and ask “Am I good enough?”  To answer my own question I am!! I’ve been able to find a Superintendent who wants to teach a person who wants to learn. 

The reason for the post is to just shield some light with my brothers and sisters in Turf of my experiences being a Black Superintendent in this industry.  These experiences have shaped me into the Leader I am today and I love Working on a Golf Course.  My only hope is that I can help a young minority’s path in this industry, take time mentor him. 

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Thank you for sharing your experience and words of encouragement! Shared experiences are the key to eroding race based bias... I hope more people of color seek golf maintenance as a career and make the entire industry stronger to face the challenges of the future!

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