At Pebble Beach in 2019, Lee Elder received the Bob Jones Award – the USGA’s highest honor bestowed on individuals who demonstrate the spirit, personal character and respect for the game exemplified by Jones. It was a crowning moment for someone who had thrived in the game despite all the obstacles presented to him as a Black man born in 1934.
As that lifetime achievement settled in on the eve of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Macey Russell, Elder’s longtime friend, asked the honoree a simple question.
“What do you want to do next?”
Elder’s response was emphatic: “We have to make golf more diverse.”
Two years later, in November 2021, The Country Club in partnership with the USGA announced the establishment of the Lee Elder Internship – an immersive one-week program that will bring 25 diverse youths from under-represented communities to Brookline during the 2022 U.S. Open.
The goal is simple – introduce these kids to the many career pathways in golf and expose them to the game’s core values and the insight of its industry leaders. The daily curriculum will cover the gamut of some of the more than two million jobs in the $84 billion golf industry – tournament operations, media, course maintenance and design, sales and marketing, facility operations and management, etc.
If you look around the game, it’s apparent that minorities are woefully underrepresented. The mission of this internship is to help address this imbalance by encouraging young people from diverse communities to participate in golf and explore the many career opportunities in the game.
“Diversity remains one of the major challenges facing the golf industry, one that can only be addressed with continued emphasis and initiatives to reach underrepresented individuals,” Will Fulton, general chair for the 2022 U.S. Open, said at the announcement of this pilot initiative. “This program is designed to play a role in this ecosystem by reaching new audiences at formative times, providing them with information and establishing relationships with golf leaders. It’s a model we have every expectation can be replicated in the future.”
This is not a program in Elder’s name only. A pioneer in integrating golf on the PGA Tour – he was the first Black player to compete in the Masters in 1975 and the Ryder Cup in 1979 – Elder helped conceive of the internship in conversations with Russell. He wanted to lay the groundwork for another generation of kids from diverse communities to find a home in the game he loved.
“I have always worked hard to help underprivileged kids have greater opportunities in life,” Elder said when the internship was announced just 10 days before he died on Nov. 27, 2021, at age 87. “I am honored to be associated with this important new program, one that will provide several exceptional opportunities for minority representation in the game of golf.”
Russell – a partner in Choate Hall & Stewart’s Complex Trial and Appellate Group in Boston and a national leader in the dialogue on diversity in the legal profession – maintained a close friendship with Elder going back more than 30 years. For 10 years they ran some golf tournaments together in the Boston area to help disadvantaged kids.
The internship idea blossomed from their frequent conversations leading up to that night in 2019 at Pebble Beach. It grew quickly from there.
“He was constantly talking about the lack of diversity in golf and I think it had a lot to do with his coming up in Texas, one of nine kids, and making it onto the tour at age 34 when people like (Jack) Nicklaus, Gary Player, (Tom) Weiskopf and (Arnold) Palmer were on the tour when they were like 20 or 21 years old,” Russell said. “So he was always kind of experiencing this being one of only a couple.
“So fast forward to 2021 and he received the honor of being one of the starters at the Masters. We’re out there at Augusta and had a little event that night and we kind of had the same discussion again: ‘We have to do something to make golf more diverse and inclusive. We’ve got to find ways to get some Black golfers on the tour and in the business of golf.’ We’re kind of looking around the Masters and that’s pretty true. So this is just something he’s always wanted.”
“This internship is a way to go after those students with that profile and say money’s not going to be the issue here. We want to bring you here and we want to introduce you to the business in the game of golf.” – Macey Russell
A few months later, The Country Club approached Russell about helping with its diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and felt him out for any ideas he might have. Funny they should ask.
“At a minimum,” Russell said, “you need to have an elite internship program that takes advantage of the fact that the business of golf and the players are all going to be at the U.S. Open. And we need to be able to identify highly talented students and give them an opportunity to participate in an internship program without any barriers to their participation.”
Russell said the club and USGA eagerly agreed on the merits of the concept and jumped in with both feet. The Country Club and the USGA will cover all of the program’s costs – including travel expenses, meals and accommodating all the interns at neighboring Pine Manor College which abuts the club’s Primrose Course.
Russell understands the odds stacked against diversity in the workplace, and much of it has to do with the lack of experiences like the one this internship program can provide.
“Two résumés hit your desk,” he explained. “That one résumé you see the kid has four or five internships, has gained all this knowledge during the course of being in college. Then you have someone else who doesn’t have that – may have worked in the mall or had some other jobs but tells you that they really want to do this and they think they’d be really good. Most times you’re gonna say that kid with all the experiences is better qualified, right? And so, because of that, these students find themselves at a disadvantage. On top of that, some of these kids have to work to go to school and some don’t get full scholarship money, and so they never really have a chance to compete.
“This internship is a way to go after those students with that profile and say money’s not going to be the issue here. We want to bring you here and we want to introduce you to the business in the game of golf. We also want to talk to you about diversity, equity and inclusion, and what that means in the workplace today.
“We’re trying to create a level playing field to give them an opportunity to compete. Because without it and without people committed to creating these opportunities, things won’t change. Because you’ll continue to take the kids with the other résumé.”
The interns will spend part of their days during U.S. Open week in classroom workshops learning what it is like as a person of color going into corporate America – how to handle conscious and unconscious bias, absorbing inevitable microaggressions, the value of DE&I in the workplace.
The rest of their time will be spent getting hands-on experience in all facets of the golf business and operating an event the scale of the U.S. Open.
“How do you run the U.S. Open? What is the business about it? What are the components – the marketing, the merchandising, the security, the environmental issues, golf course management, media?” Russell said. “There are a number of things that get an understanding of the full picture of the business of golf. It helps you down the road when you’re given the assignment to have to do things, like ‘Oh, I kind of know what that’s about. Because I remember they did this at the U.S. Open.’
“They will be going on a rotating basis to different areas of the Open to see how everything works in real time. They might spend an afternoon at NBC Sports and the Golf Channel and the media tent and see how all that works. Then they might spend an afternoon with the sustainability and environmental group to see what you do with 100,000 water bottles every day.”
By the end of the week, these 25 kids will have a better understanding of the breadth of opportunities available in the golf business and a better chance of making the connections that could lead to a career in an industry seeking more diversity.
This program is currently exclusive to the 2022 U.S. Open and The Country Club, but Russell hopes that it catches on and is replicated at the 2023 Open at Los Angeles Country Club and at other majors championships.
“It can’t be mandated, because the host club has got to decide that they would want to do something like this,” Russell said. “What we’re hoping to do is to kind of set up the template for how you put on an internship program. The best case is that for each major, there’ll be this kind of event. So you’d have it at Augusta, then you would have it in the PGA Championship, you have the U.S. Open – that could bring or introduce 75 students a year to the game of golf at a very high level that might not otherwise be introduced.
“So there’s great potential, but at a minimum we’re hopeful that the DE&I programs that we put together for the U.S. Open at The Country Club, that other clubs look at that and say, ‘We want to do that; that’s like a really good thing to do.’”
“When you fast forward and you think about an internship program like this in Lee Elder’s name at a place like The Country Club, it gives you a feel for how far we’ve come and how extraordinary that is …” – Macey Russell
Russell’s lone regret is that Elder won’t be around to see it to fruition and be a part of it himself.
“It’s kind of sad,” Russell said. “I talked to him Tuesday before Thanksgiving, he was very excited and was like, ‘I want to sit down and talk to these kids. Spend some time with them.’ We were going to put that into the schedule. You know, he always has a way about him, he really wanted the kids to know who he was.”
To that end, the USGA and eSports intend to compile interviews and clips of Elder to incorporate it into the program for the interns.
“So they can get a little bit of a feel for him and his life that you know will give the students a chance to kind of talk about what they think about diversity in golf,” Russell said.
Elder’s legacy still has stories to tell about what he and his peers went through to integrate the game at the highest level. Russell has heard all the stories about Lee and Charlie Sifford changing shoes and clothes in their cars because they weren’t allowed in club locker rooms. Or Jim Thorpe winning a tournament and being told to meet them in the parking lot, where they handed him a check and bag with a sandwich in it and told him, “Now get out of here.”
“When you fast forward and you think about an internship program like this in Lee Elder’s name at a place like The Country Club, it gives you a feel for how far we’ve come and how extraordinary that is, including the optics of such a message,” Russell said. “That makes me feel really good.”
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