The NFL draft has come and gone, and with it the Rams’ history-making selection of Michael Sam to become, eventually, the NFL’s first openly gay player. Both Sam and the NBA’s Jason Collins have received support and acceptance from most, so we may soon get to the point where LGBT athletes will see little reason to conceal their sexual identities. As the draft approached last week, I found myself wondering if men’s golf ultimately might prove to be the most challenging pro sport for an athlete to come out. Several LPGA players have been out for years, yet none of their male counterparts on the PGA Tour has ever come out as openly gay.
Six-time Tour winner Brandt Snedeker told The Golf Channel’s David Feherty in March that there probably are a couple of gay players on tour, and he’d welcome them to come out, but other players have suggested that the response could be mixed. Masters champion Bubba Watson told The Christian Post last year that he believes “being gay is a sin,” but he then added that he respects gay people. In 2012, U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson tweeted his reasons for “loving Chick-fil-A,” and Stewart Cink followed suit — golfers really, really love Chick-fil-A — in the wake of COO Dan Cathy’s public statements opposing gay marriage. Both players have said they’d be cordial if a gay player were on the PGA Tour, but even so, their admitted prejudice creates a certain type of hostile work environment.
In theory, it could be easier to come out in an individual sport than in a team sport, without having to contend with a pack-like locker-room culture. If a player has to endure a quiet round or two because another player has a problem, so be it. Without a team to travel with or an assigned road roommate, a golfer would seem less likely to face asinine comments about “being a distraction” or “fear of showering” (looking squarely in your direction, Jonathan Vilma). On the other hand, rival golfers are also free of some of the regulatory norms that restrict teammates in other sports, such as mandatory counseling and fines for inappropriate comments and discriminatory behaviors. A PGA player isn’t under contract to a franchise that coaches him on social consciousness in media appearances, tweets and the like.
Like the players themselves, the PGA Tour’s fan base skews conservative politically and religiously, and many of the anti-gay sentiments heard on the circuit have been accompanied by citations of the Bible. I’ve heard fans sling disgusting homophobic slurs aimed at straight players who leave putts short, so one can assume that an openly gay player will be subject to a lion’s share from some of the more vocal galleries. With fewer players taking up golf year after year, the sport’s community — the tours, the governing bodies, golf-specific media — has started to emphasize growing the game and making it more accessible, yet the sport still has exclusivity problems at every level. Several tour players are members of all-male private clubs, plenty of which also happen to not have African-American or openly gay members, and golf remains cost-prohibitive for a significant segment of the population. Dress codes, rigid cell phone regulations, initiations — in many ways, the sport broadcasts the message, “If you’re not like us, we don’t want you.”
As more elite athletes are coming out, I hope a few PGA Tour golfers join them, because I think the sport needs it. Jason Collins inspired UMass’ Derrick Gordon to become the first openly gay NCAA Division I basketball player. The Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner is paving the way for other young women in her new, beautifully written memoir In My Skin: My Life On and Off The Basketball Court. In order to grow, golf needs to evolve and change and appeal to everyone. I hope that Snedeker is right, that the emergence of an openly gay PGA Tour golfer is imminent. And I’m hoping he’s correct in assuming that player will be welcomed.
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Sarah Turcotte is a writer and producer living in New York. Her work has appeared in ESPN The Magazine, espn.com, Golf Digest, Fast Company, Bon Appetit and Details. She played collegiate golf at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her greatest golf achievement was not being in last place after the first day of her only LPGA Tour start. She tweets occasionally at @turcottesarah.