Police used tear gas to disperse crowds of protesters in Fort Worth, Texas earlier this month. Bystanders claimed the marchers outnumbered those who took to the streets following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. For a nation engulfed by anger and grief following the death of George Floyd, the protests have been a beacon of hope. On Wednesday, police chief Ed Kraus confirmed he would be dropping all charges against those accused of rioting; their protests, he said, have “echoed across the nation”.
They carried to within five miles of Fort Worth, where the PGA Tour will resume to action for the first time in three months on Thursday. Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson spearhead a decorated field who were jetted into Texas on the Tour’s chartered planes. A mobile testing truck will ensure continued safety at Colonial Country Club, with nasal-swab tests that indicate a positive or negative result for Covid-19 within five minutes. For the sport, it’s a return to its immaculately kept bubble. But, in a wider context, it bears little relevance at all.
Golf has always existed within its own prism of privacy and privilege. It’s built up a staunch denial of its criticisms – a lack of prominent BAME players, prevailing sexism and unequal opportunity – and has typically remained neutral or oblivious to its surroundings: take last year’s debut event in Saudi Arabia, for example. But while America is forced to reckon with its own reflection, golf too has realised that it can no longer play blind to what lies straight ahead.
Harold Varner III, one of only three black players on the PGA Tour, labelled the murder of Floyd “a senseless killing” and the work of “an evil incarnate”. “There are objective truths in life,” he wrote on Twitter. “That was one of them.”
Tiger Woods, who’s always taken a reserved approach to tackling social issues, recalled the Rodney King riots that erupted in his home state of California in 1992 and said Floyd’s killing “clearly crossed the line”. His statement may have been more carefully worded, but no viewpoint pierces the illusion quite like his.
Rarely can golf claim to have had a voice – or ever been a force for justice. Institutionalised racism has been a major character within its history, from the ban on African American members at Augusta National that existed until 1990 to its willingness to travel to South Africa during the height of apartheid. It’s an uncomfortable truth that has, at least to some extent, been airbrushed by a sport that’s so carefully cultivated its image and brand.
Perhaps, then, the most significant point of golf’s comeback isn’t the spectacle of sport behind closed doors, but the realisation that it too needs to change. Last week, the Tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, held a two-part discussion with Varner entitled “a thoughtful conversation”. After recounting his “sleepless nights” following Floyd’s murder, Monahan admitted that the sport has been in a “relatively stable position for a long time” and that it “needs to grow” and “become part of the solution”.
On Thursday morning, the 8:46 tee-time – the length of time that police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck during his arrest and has now become synonymous with the fight against racial inequality – will not be attended by any players, with a minute’s silence held in their place. Meanwhile, dozens of leading players, such as Koepka and Jon Rahm, have aired their own individual displays of solidarity.
At this stage, there is little that can be shown but intention. But, finally, golf seems to be taking the first step out of its sheltered bunker to address its own social and structural issues. From there, perhaps, real change can follow. This week, it’s up to the players to continue to carry that momentum. And then, amid all the fanfare over their return, there can no longer be any ignorance of what lies just a short way down the road.