August 8, 2007

Paving A Path

With the PGA Championship in Tulsa, it's time to remember the impact of African-American golfer Bill Spiller

Diversity remains a goal for many people in golf.

Diversity remains a goal for many people in golf.

TULSA, Okla. -- You probably never heard of him. Few outside the inner sanctum of golf and those unfamiliar with the unflattering side of the game's past know the name Bill Spiller. His legacy, however, resonates this week during the 89th PGA Championship at Southern Hills.

Spiller was a gangly basketball standout at Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High in the 1930s. He rose to fame -- or infamy, depending upon which side of the fairway you favored -- as one of the protagonists who forced the PGA of America to rescind its Caucasian-only clause in 1961, 27 years after it was instituted. Twenty-seven years of enforced exclusion of minorities from professional golf in this country.

The implied kind lasted two decades longer.

Spiller never played in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, although he had enough game to dog the heels of the great Ben Hogan in the 1948 Los Angeles Open, one of the few events that welcomed minorities. He died before Tiger Woods came on the scene.

Like his great friend, boxing champ Joe Louis, Spiller was a fighter. The fruits of his successful battle for inclusion can be seen today in a sincere effort by the PGA to grow the game and expand its opportunities among minorities.

David Cook, an African-American entrepreneur from Charlotte, N.C., is the face of change and inclusion in what has become a $60 billion-a-year industry. He is an on-course concessions subcontractor with Levy Restaurants of Chicago and has worked with the PGA since 1999.

"They (the PGA) are committed to inclusion," said Cook, who is employing 45 minorities at three concession stands at Southern Hills. "We've developed a great relationship."

Diversity in the game is more than just posturing by the PGA, according to Earnie Ellison, its director of business and community relations and one of a handful of minorities at the higher echelon of golf.

"For that part of the economic development that we directly control -- the PGA Championship, Senior PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup -- we have a specific goal that we will have 25 percent participation of minorities in business services like food and beverage, construction and temporary labor," Ellison said. "For this event at Southern Hills, we currently have 27 percent participation of minorities -- the first time we've gotten above that target.

"We're pleased with that but we're not going to stop there because we have to understand that there are minority companies out there that can get into the bigger part of the business. The task is to find minority-owned businesses with goods and services that can transfer over from customer-based into the broader golf industry."

Ellison says identifying those businesses owned by African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Latin Americans isn't a mandate but "the right thing to do." It's also a continuation of the PGA's commitment to growing the game from a grass-roots perspective.

That's what the organization had in mind 10 years ago when it assumed control of the National Minority College Championships, moved it from Cleveland to Port St. Lucie, Fla., and forged a deal with the Golf Channel to televise the event.

Plant a seed that the PGA is ready, willing and able to lend a helping hand, to provide the boots and assist in pulling minorities up by the straps. It's a worthy undertaking even if the numbers -- of the 28,000 PGA members and apprentices, approximately 900 are minorities; a splash of color on the various tours; even fewer in the decision-making process of the game's ruling bodies and media -- don't reflect much progress.

Ellison believes the eventual answer begins with membership in the PGA. That was the focus at this year's college championship as the first two rounds were designated as a qualifier for the PGA's player ability test (PAT), a prerequisite for membership. Most of the 180-player field participated, with 55 passing the test and six seniors opted to further their careers by attending an accelerated professional golf management program.

Several of the PGA's partners agreed to sponsor the students in the program and hire them upon completion. Call it incremental but noteworthy steps toward the PGA's goal of 2,200 minority members.

"If we can help more minorities and women become members of the association, there will be more of a concentration on minority youth learning the game of golf," Ellison said. "My challenge is to help them make the leap from one level to another, in particular the college kids. That's where community or support from the private sector comes in.

"We can advise potential supporters about quality instruction, nutritionists and how to manage success; in effect equip them with the knowledge necessary to assist these individuals. Combine that with a greater share on the economic side and you have sustained growth of the game. It's a win-win for everybody."

Surely a victory Spiller would be proud of.

Pete McDaniel is the author of Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story Of African-Americans In Golf