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A coming-out party at the inaugural SF Pride Pro-Am

August 29, 2019

During his first 18 years as a PGA professional, Greg Fitzgerald lived in fear. Fear of being found out, fear of being judged—or worse—shunned by his fellow PGA members and the game he devoted his life to. All because he’s a gay man. On his way to becoming the head professional at The Institute, a private club in Morgan Hill, Calif., and a member of the Northern California Section of the PGA of America (NCPGA), Fitzgerald has never met another gay male golf pro who is out. The isolation he felt kept him from telling people who he was and led him to live a double life. But now those two worlds are about to intersect, and Fitzgerald is understandably a little anxious.

It’s June 25, and Fitzgerald is at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco preparing the tee gifts for the SF Pride Pro-Am, a tournament sanctioned by the PGA of America and NCPGA for the LGBTQ community and its allies during the city’s annual Pride Week. The tournament is the first of its kind. The field is full—capped at 125 players. Fitzgerald is running it, and he’s shocked at how fast the event and his life have progressed since he came out professionally last year. One of the things Fitzgerald loves most about the tournament is that each group features a PGA professional. It was an idea that came from a friend, an idea that Fitzgerald didn’t think would work.

“The golf pros were so willing to come out and play,” Fitzgerald says. “It gives me chills thinking about how much they supported this. As a gay man, there’s still the thought that men, especially athletes, look down on gay men and the LGBTQ community. But I quickly realized things have changed. Just that little part of me was holding back.”

Fitzgerald, 44, has been holding back in different ways throughout his life. He grew up playing golf in northern New Jersey. He didn’t compete collegiately, but he began playing again when he moved to California after school. A friend was a professional at a local club and hired Fitzgerald to work in the golf shop. From there, he went on to get his PGA membership. Slowly, during the past 18 years, Fitzgerald has come out to people he trusted at the courses where he worked. But it wasn’t until he volunteered to head the committee for diversity and inclusion for the NCPGA that he realized he needed to come out professionally on a large scale.

“I was shaking,” Fitzgerald says of the moment. “I was giving a summary of what our committee was working on, and I said something like, ‘As a gay man, I should be able to play on any golf course that anybody else plays on.’ ”

As far as Fitzgerald and Golf Digest know, no other male PGA member has publicly come out. It was a source of anxiety for Fitzgerald because if no one had done it, he assumed there must have been a reason. Pro athletes in football, baseball and basketball have come out in recent years, and the LPGA Tour has had openly lesbian members since the 1970s, but men’s golf has lagged. Only in September 2018 did the first male professional golfer, Tadd Fujikawa, say he is gay.

It’s tough to figure out exactly why. Certainly, one reason is golf’s longtime image as an exclusive, straight, white-man’s game. Fitzgerald says gay men hesitate to share their sexuality to avoid homophobic responses and harassment. The mostly male, intimate spaces of locker rooms and clubhouses are especially intimidating, he says.

Beyond concerns of being harassed, there’s also the fear of not being treated equally or thought of in the same way. For men in sports to take this step, Fitzgerald says, they have to feel safe and believe they’ll be treated with respect. “For so long I didn’t, but now I’m in my mid-40s,” he says. “I finally decided I didn’t want to wait one second longer to be who I am.”

Among email, Facebook and in-person interactions, Fitzgerald says he received hundreds of positive responses after he affirmed he was gay. The experience has changed him, he says. Before coming out, he was “strategically introverted” and never would’ve been the voice and champion for the SF Pride Pro-Am, or been able to handle the attention that he has received from the media. He’s thoughtful and a little reserved when he speaks, but he exudes confidence. Two years ago, he says, he wouldn’t have been this way. “I’m capable of doing it now because I’m not hiding from anyone anymore,” Fitzgerald says. “I feel capable of doing anything. It’s really interesting to become a whole new person by coming out professionally.”

Will anyone show up?

The SF Pride Pro-Am wouldn’t have existed if Fitzgerald hadn’t come out. Tom Smith, the general manager at Harding Park, connected Fitzgerald with the SF Pride board shortly afterward. Smith’s wife, Lyn, had previously talked about doing a golf tournament as a fundraiser for SF Pride with Nguyen Pham, the board secretary. The two knew each other from participating with an adult cheerleading team. With the PGA Championship being played at TPC Harding Park in 2020, Smith and Fitzgerald knew they had the right course. In San Francisco Pride, they had their cause.

“This is a come-one, come-all facility,” says Smith, who has been a PGA member for 16 years. “Having everybody come together to play golf, it’s about changing the course of society and using golf to do that.”

The tournament came together quickly. An organizing committee was formed and planning began in February. Fitzgerald would’ve been happy with 40 participants, but thanks to the marketing power of SF Pride, the 100th amateur spot was filled the day before the tournament. One hundred amateurs and 25 club pros arrived at Harding Park on a typically misty, chilly San Francisco morning. A giant rainbow tunnel made of balloons fronted the clubhouse. Inside, the bathrooms were converted to gender neutral for the day. Teams featured a mix of LGBTQ golfers and their hetero allies. Some teams arrived in matching outfits, others in bright colors or rainbow attire, and others simply in regular golf attire. Pride and transgender flags flew on the knoll by the 10th tee box.

Jay Hanna

The LGBTQ community had officially taken over a golf course under the leadership of a gay male professional. It was a collision of worlds that was long overdue. And the collision was peaceful, joyful and easy.

A sense of belonging

In most ways, it was a normal fundraiser golf tournament. The format was a scramble. There was a hole-in-one competition for a BMW, and there were conversations about the pace of play. Where it differed was in the buzzy undercurrent that was a cross of “I can’t believe we’re doing this,” and “Finally, this is happening.” At a typical scramble, most people are just happy to be there, and there’s a sense of belonging that’s taken for granted. A significant portion of the field at the SF Pride Pro-Am was coming to the golf course thrilled to have been invited.

Suzanne Ford, a member of the SF Pride board, was one such golfer. She used to play a lot of golf. She transitioned from male to female when she was 48 and found that as a transgender woman, she no longer had a group to play golf with. She quit.

“The guys I came out to who I played golf with, it was difficult for them. I tried to give them time to adjust,” Ford says. “I stopped playing, but I never relinked those friendships. And I was intimidated to go to the golf course. I didn’t have a group of trans women to go to the golf course with.”

She hadn’t swung a golf club in five years when she heard about the tournament from Pham at a SF Pride board meeting. There aren’t any other golfers on the Pride board, so Ford had to explain the significance of the tournament.

“I told them, ‘You don’t get it; we don’t go in that world,’ ” she says.

Ford met with Fitzgerald and Smith and started helping plan the event. She also played golf with them at their urging. The first time she went back on the course, she cried. “I remembered I was terrible,” says Ford, laughing. But getting more serious, she admits: “I remembered why I loved it.”

Ford says she was worried about going to a golf course because as a trans woman, she wasn’t sure if she’d be accepted. After hitting balls with Fitzgerald and Smith, she and another trans friend played at a local public course. They were paired with a father and son and say the experience was a good one.

“It was my fear that kept me away from golf,” Ford says. “But once I came to the course, I found my fears were unfounded.”

The best way to overcome that reluctance, LGBTQ golfers at the event say, is to go to the course with other LGBTQ golfers. The only problem with that, especially for the gay male golfers, is that the number of other gay male golfers is seemingly low. But throughout the day, more than a few participants had the same realization: “I didn’t know so many gay people played golf.”

Jay Hanna

The desire to see just how big the LGBTQ golf community is brought a lot of the participants to Harding Park. Carol Gossett is the business operations manager at the Stanford (Calif.) Golf Learning Center. She was one of the PGA pros in attendance and one of the first 200 women to receive PGA membership.

“I’m excited,” she says. “This is a huge step. There’s a feeling of exclusivity around golf—that you have to be a certain person or look a certain way to play. But that’s not true.” Gossett is happy to see how far sports has come in accepting LGBTQ athletes. She didn’t come out until after college because she planned on being a physical-education teacher, and to be able to teach, she had to sign a form saying she isn’t homosexual. “It was a hidden population,” she says, “but now we’re letting people know that who we are doesn’t take anything away from them.”

Kristian Nergaard has played golf in the San Francisco area for 30 years and founded a regular golf group of LGBTQ friends who call themselves the Golden Gayte Golfers. “When I heard about this tournament, I said, ‘I have to do this,’ ” he says.

Jessie Merrill, 25, is new to San Francisco and was the youngest player at the SF Pride Pro-Am and one of the better female amateurs in the field, having played for the University of Virginia. She saw the event on the SF Pride calendar two days before it was scheduled. It was serendipitous because she had yet to find a good entry into the golf community in San Francisco. “I emailed Greg at like midnight on Monday, and he said he had one spot left. It really worked out. This is my first golf event since getting to California.”

It might sound overly simple, but is the way to increase participation and diversity in golf as easy as letting under-represented groups know they’re welcome at your golf course? Although the golf industry has initiatives in place for increasing play among juniors and women, the LGBTQ community isn’t talked about. The SF Pride Pro-Am could be a catalyst for those conversations.

Some of the event’s success can be attributed to it being played in San Francisco, a place where the LGBTQ community has flourished for decades and has a history of ordinances focused on equality and anti-discrimination. The timing helped, too. Played just four days before the Pride parade in downtown San Francisco, the SF Pride Pro-Am was able to feed off of the positive momentum of the 49-year-old celebration in which 50,000 people would march to support the LGBTQ community. Geographically and on the calendar, the tournament was set up for success. “I think that golf is ready for diversity, but it needs to be authentic,” Fitzgerald says. “Different communities have different nuances and norms.”

Jay Hanna

Fitzgerald says that to welcome under-represented groups to the golf course, people in positions of power in golf need to better understand those communities and what might intimidate them. Once clubs and pros understand this, they can start relieving the inhibitors that keep people away. “Inviting LGBTQ people to the golf course is in the little things, like having a small gay pride flag in the window at your golf shop,” Fitzgerald says.

With 25 PGA professionals in attendance, the SF Pride Pro-Am was an ideal forum for having a conversation about how to include the LGBTQ community in golf, and that conversation is guaranteed to continue. The date for next year’s SF Pride Pro-Am is already set: June 24, 2020.

“I hope everybody can see that this isn’t something that we’re throwing at people,” Fitzgerald says. “A tournament like this is only going to help the game of golf. That’s what the message is, that’s the point of this.”

As the SF Pride Pro-Am came to a close, the groups filed into the clubhouse for awards, dinner and a drink, or a few.

There was one other group of golfers at Harding Park that day. A few dozen kids in the PGA Jr. League who had been using the practice range and putting green walked through the throng of Pride players. They did so without turning a head or pausing. They were oblivious to the historic day taking place just a few feet away. For them, it was just another day at the course.

Perhaps the reason the SF Pride Pro-Am went so well and felt so normal—and that no juniors looked surprised at seeing gay, lesbian and trans golfers at the course—is because golf is finally ready for this.