The inspiring golfers breaking down stereotypes

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Meet the inspirational men and women who are smashing golf's stereotypes and making the game more inclusive and representative.

We might not like to admit it, but golf has had – and still does have – an image problem.

Lee Westwood goes as far as to say that the game is “still perceived as a white activity”, while you only have to look at the disparity in the pay and TV coverage in the men’s and women’s game – not to mention the four male-only golf clubs in the UK – to see that inequality is still a glaring issue.

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Times, though, are beginning to change and it’s because of people like Aaron Rai, Mel Reid, Zane Scotland and Brendan Lawlor that barriers are being broken down.

At Today’s Golfer, we know we can do more to help and we believe their voices need to be heard to help tackle discrimination, as well as a lack of inclusivity and diversity in golf. We spoke to all four inspirational golfers about their experiences (good and bad) and how, with your support, we can make golf more accessible and appealing for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.

"Golf changed my life and I think it can change even more." Zane Scotland – European Tour player turned coach

Former European Tour pro turned coach, Zane Scotland.

Zane Scotland was just 13 when he first experienced racism in golf. It was never directed at him, but it didn’t need to be.

He can count another six occasions when he experienced discrimination from strangers, playing partners and even people he considered to be friends. 

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that I’m half black,” says Scotland, a 10-time winner on the MENA Tour. “My mum’s white, but my dad is black. There were numerous occasions when golfers would make racist remarks. Often I would just walk away, and then my mate, Ben, would tell the guy, ‘Did you know Zane’s dad is black?’”

Of all the times, only once did he receive an apology. The others stayed silent. But even now he wonders how other people would have coped had they heard some of the things he did growing up.

“The next person might feel that they are less of a person or less welcome for no other reason than the colour of skin,” says the 38-year-old. “No one should be put in that position.”

The impact on someone’s mental health is what concerns him the most and while the increased awareness surrounding discrimination and inequality suggests times are changing in golf and society, Scotland is adamant that more needs to be done. 

“Twenty three years ago, Tiger Woods came along, amazed us, and we all got a bit lax. People saw this black guy from Asian and African-American descent dominating
the sport, and used it as a box-ticking exercise to show how diverse the game was.

"But that’s never been the case. Golf is still a white dominated sport and it needs to be more inclusive and representative of all demographics.

“Golf is still not an easy sport to get in to. I think we hide behind the expense and cost part of it. The governing bodies could and should be doing more because there are enough professional golfers doing their training with the PGA who could go around the country, take golf to an area where it isn’t very popular, and inspire youngsters, women and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) groups. But they don’t.”

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To illustrate his point, a recent survey found that 92.4 percent of the UK’s BAME citizens who expressed an opinion on golf said it was either not inclusive at all or observed that “some people like me are welcome, but it is rare”.

It’s a feeling Scotland knows only too well, having been reproached on the practice ground this summer for wearing his hat back to front.

“Luckily, I knew it was just an archaic view, rather than a club rule, but if you are just starting out or an 11-year-old youngster, you probably wouldn’t play again,” says Scotland, who is an ambassador for the Black Heart Foundation.

“Golf needs a kick up the bottom because now is the time to rectify these issues. Growing up, I went to a school in Croydon and when my mates were going out at weekends,
I was playing golf. That’s something I’ve probably taken for granted because a few of my schoolfriends have either been killed through drug abuse or being stabbed.

"That kind of environment was something I was never exposed to because I was playing golf. It’s something I feel passionate about because golf changed my life, and I think it can change a bunch of lives.”

To help lead change, Scotland is hoping to organise two golf events in underprivileged areas next year to show people that golf can be accessible to people of all backgrounds. “Golf does more than we sometimes give it credit for, and that needs to be recognised and promoted,” he adds.

“If by running these events we can get more kids and people of BAME backgrounds into the game, it will all be worth it.”

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"I want to fight for equality in every sense of the word." Mel Reid - LET and LPGA winner and Solheim Cup star

LET, LPGA and Solheim Cup star Mel Reid.

Mel Reid has always been a fighter. That much was obvious when she took a pair of top-50 players to the final green at the 2016 UL International Crown after her partner, Charley Hull, had pulled out with a fever.

More recently she’s been living in Florida, winning for the first time on the LPGA and playing money matches against the likes of Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler.

But it’s her actions off the course which are creating bigger headlines.

Reid is actively using her voice to campaign for what she thinks is right and that includes championing women’s golf wherever possible. It is why she “didn’t think twice” when she blasted golf’s return to TV screens for missing a huge opportunity when TaylorMade’s Driving Relief skins match did not feature any women.

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The backlash that followed on social media was spiteful, not to mention predictable, though it hasn’t stopped her from speaking her mind. Her calls for more male golfers to step up like “Andy Murray has done for women’s tennis” have yielded more positive results, most notably with the exposure created by the inaugural Rose Ladies Series.

“That was an incredible thing for Justin (Rose) and his wife (Kate) to do and it really got the ball rolling,” says the 33-year-old, who has won six times on the Ladies European Tour. “People like Tony Finau, Tommy Fleetwood and Brooks (Koepka) are now speaking out about the women’s game and it is important because I would love golf to be golf and not classified as men’s golf or women’s golf.”

Her campaigning for equality holds even greater importance now she is part of the LBGQT community. In 2018, Reid joined with Athlete Ally, an organisation that’s working to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports, and shared her coming out story.

It also gave her the motivation to go searching for a bigger platform and to play on the LPGA Tour full time in the hope of inspiring others.

“I went to the golf club a couple of days after coming out and this 75-year-old came straight up to me and said, ‘I just want to say thank you because my granddaughter is gay and you really educated me and changed my opinion’. And that’s honestly why I did it and why I want to keep giving back. Not just to help guys and girls who are struggling with their identity, but to help educate everyone because I want to fight for equality in every sense of the word.”

It’s an admirable attitude to have, despite the knockbacks it often creates. But she knows better than most the power of what speaking her mind can do.

In 2012, Reid lost her mother, Joy, in a car crash and has battled with grief and her own self-worth ever since. Her pain and suffering have been made even harder by the keyboard warriors who abuse her on a weekly basis, though it’s perhaps no coincidence that she won the ShopRite LPGA Classic in October, just two months after seeing a sports psychologist for the first time.

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“I try not to really read what’s written on social media, but I did catch one comment saying ‘She’ll choke again’. That gave me some extra fire in my belly,” says Reid, who relocated from Shropshire to America in 2018.

“I’ve obviously been criticised for some of the things I’ve said, fighting for equality, so it was nice to kind of stick my finger up at them to be completely honest. Now I’m a winner, the respect feels a little different.”

The jubilant scenes after her victory reflected Reid’s popularity in the women’s game, not just because of her infectious personality but because she is fighting every player’s corner.
After all, no other female golfer has ever barged their way onto the walls of every American Golf store after complaining about its all-male posters. 

“I’ve had so many comments about it from girls and women saying that it’s a pleasant surprise (to see me there), because when you go into a pro shop, you very rarely see the poster being a female golfer and that doesn’t give off the greatest message to a young girl trying to take up the game.

“But that’s what we need and we are making great gains. You’ve got Muirfield which was a male-only club and is now allowing women, so golf clubs are moving in the right direction and equality is improving. But I would always push for more because there is still a huge gap and it filters all the way down to manufacturers who don’t make it easy for girls to get golf equipment.”

For the time being, Reid is content with being part of the winner’s circle again, though you can get the sense she’ll never stop campaigning for what she believes is right. Her hope now is that more people will be listening.

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"Playing on the European Tour inspired so many people." Brendan Lawlor – No.4 in the world rankings for golfers with disability

Brendan Lawlor is paving the way for golfers with disability.

Brendan Lawlor had only ever dreamed of playing in the same tournament as former World No.1s Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. He never thought it was a possibility until this summer when he became the first golfer with disabilities to compete on the European Tour.

But it’s a journey which might never have happened had his Aunty Anne not suggested that he join the European Disability Golf Association.

“I think my mum was worried I might get insulted about the possibility of playing disabled golf,” explains Lawlor. “I had played able-bodied golf at quite a high amateur level, but I was born with a rare condition called Ellis-van Creveld syndrome, which is characterised by shorter arms and shorter legs. 

“My fingers are also missing knuckles which does make it harder to grip the club, but from day one I’ve sort of embraced my disability. I thought disability golf would be a fantastic road to go down, so I played my first event in November 2018 and I haven’t looked back.”

Even though Lawlor was still working part-time for the family business, he turned pro after winning the EDGA Scottish Open in July 2019 and was selected to compete in the ISPS HANDA Disabled Golf Cup, a tournament played alongside the Presidents Cup in Melbourne.

Then came the moment this summer when he was asked if he would like to play in the UK Championship at The Belfry, followed by the Northern Ireland Open on the Challenge Tour a week later.

“I remember I was on a wee golfing trip with friends and I was in the pub at the time when my manager Mark (McDonnell) called,” admits Lawlor. “When he told me, I actually dropped the phone in excitement. I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ It just felt so surreal. And then actually playing in it… I mean first tee nerves in competition are bad enough, never mind playing in your first European Tour event.”

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Although he missed the cut on 22-over-par at The Belfry, Lawlor didn’t leave empty handed as former Ryder Cup star Nicolas Colsaerts was kind enough to give him some tips on the range.

“I thought that was genuinely lovely because he had more important things to do,” says the 23-year-old from Ireland. “But just being there has opened some fantastic doors, not just for myself, but for other people to see that there are opportunities to play in European Tour and Challenge Tour events.

"You probably wouldn’t believe the amount of people who have got in touch with me, looking to join the European Disabled Golf Association. I didn’t think it was possible but that one week changed my life and inspired so many people, so imagine what would be possible if it became a regular thing?”

As well as being an ambassador for ISPS HANDA, Lawlor is now represented by Modest! Golf Management, the agency founded by music star Niall Horan, and recently signed an endorsement deal with TaylorMade. It’s a world away from when he was working as a salesman selling furniture, but Lawlor is now intent on using his story to help grow a part of the game that’s still in its infancy.

“What’s great is that there are so many disability golfers out there and we just need to keep pushing on that door because I feel like disability athletes can be forgotten about very easily,” he says.

“Covid-19 has put a bit of a spanner in the works because Keith Pelley has huge ambitions for a world tour for disability golfers, but having massive organisations like the European Tour and Modest! behind disability golf is definitely going to help.

"Hopefully, it will drive the sport into the Paralympics at some stage, maybe in 2028. That is the dream.”

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"If golfers like myself can show a different side to the game, that can only help." Aaron Rai – Two-time European Tour winner

Aaron Rai has won twice on the European Tour.

Aaron Rai is not your average European Tour pro. He is not on social media. He doesn’t have an agent. And he wears two golf gloves.

But even more surprising is the fact he only started playing golf by accident after hitting himself in the head with his brother’s hockey stick.

“To stop me from doing it again, my mum went to buy a plastic stick, which turned out to be a plastic golf club, and I was just obsessed with it,” he says. 

Aged four, Rai won the first golf tournament he entered and was even featured on BBC news soon after, where he cheekily told the reporter he wanted to become an F1 driver. “I used to dress in Ferrari shirts and Ferrari shoes when I went out to play golf,” admits Rai. “But from an early age, I think my mum and dad could see I might have something for the game.” 

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It didn’t take long for Rai to justify their faith in him. He set a new Guinness World Record after holing 207 consecutive 10-foot putts. “The previous record was something like 136, so I beat it by a long way,” says Rai, who was only 15 at the time.

Now a fully-fledged member of the European Tour, Rai continues to work with Piers Ward and Andy Proudman, from Me and My Golf, who started coaching him at the age of 11. It’s a unique set-up, considering most of their work is done over the phone at tournaments, but then Rai has never been one for following convention. 

Even from the age of five, he was playing in U12 tournaments and beating members at Patshull Park Golf Club.

“I just remember how everyone was very welcoming to me,” explains Rai. “They even changed some of the regulations to allow me to become a member because I think you needed to be 10 years old to join. I stayed there for a long time and I think that’s a lesson for a lot of clubs because many lack the ability to promote junior golf and really make it appealing.”

While Rai is now flying the flag for golfers of Indian descent on the European Tour, the lack of diversity on some of the American tours is a cause for concern. Just one black golfer is playing full-time on the LPGA, while of the 250-something active players on the PGA Tour, only four of them are African Americans.

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Rai, who beat Tommy Fleetwood to win the Scottish Open last month, is at a loss to explain the disparity, but he is hopeful that times are changing. 

“Seeing men from an Indian background, like Jeev Milkha Singh and SSP (Shiv Chawrasia), competing on the European Tour was definitely memorable for me because naturally you are drawn to someone who is of your ethnicity, doing something you aspire to do,” says the 25 year old. “When I was growing up, I do remember that the majority of members were from a white, middle class background whereas now I do see a lot more working class Asian men at golf clubs, for example.

“It is moving in the right direction because of things like Black Lives Matter. It probably comes down to the governing bodies to make people feel more welcome, but if golfers like myself can do their bit to attract people to clubs and to the game, that can only help.”

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