Nicola Bennett, an official ambassador for the Golf Foundation’s HSBC Grass Roots programme, gives you an immediate inkling into how her task of encouraging youngsters from minority backgrounds to play golf is not the easiest.
“Though I have Caribbean origins,” she said as she introduced herself, “my parents gave me an English-sounding name because they felt that a Caribbean name wouldn’t work as well when it came to interview situations.”
Yet whatever her concerns, this PGA trainee teaching professional genuinely believes that she is as well-placed as anyone to try to get the right message across to young people like herself. Namely, that golf can be “their” game as much as a white person’s.
“ … there’s a lack of Black representation at administrative levels. If that can be addressed, the chances are that the combined input of the Golf Foundation, HSBC and someone like myself can set things in motion.”
In examining how she might succeed in her role where Tiger Woods, with his 15 majors, has not fully delivered, she advances what has to be a good idea.
“It doesn’t help,” she suggests, “that golf has minimum exposure in ethnic communities and that there’s a lack of Black representation at administrative levels. If that can be addressed, the chances are that the combined input of the Golf Foundation, HSBC and someone like myself can set things in motion.”
On a personal level, the 26-year-old has uncovered other areas which need to be addressed. For instance, though she has coached at several London clubs, there is good reason why she sometimes prefers to not name them: “On one occasion when a media person mentioned where I played, I got e-mails from a couple of men who said that they knew where I was and they knew where to find me. It was sad and demoralising for an essentially private person like myself to have to go through that.”
For one of her earliest assignments in her ambassadorial post, Bennett went along to meet 5- to 12-year-olds at the Valence Primary School which is close to Dagenham where she had her earliest golf lessons. Since she is into meditation as well as golf, she slipped a touch of mindfulness into the proceedings and started out by handing round balloons, felt-tip pens and pins. Then she asked the little girls to write any of the more horrible names they had been called on the surface of the balloons. “Slut” and “bitch” were just a couple.
That done, she told the kids to go ahead and pop those balloons by way of detaching themselves from such nastiness and making them feel more secure about themselves.
“All, along, my father has wanted my sister Rebecca and I to be tough and to stay tough in our white world. And we both know that that’s for the best.” –Nicola Bennett
In the meantime, she feels that teens and 20-something-year-olds in general are as much in need of encouragement as anyone else when it comes to seeing golf in a better light.
“When I ask my friends – and here I am talking about white friends as well as Black – they all say the same,” she said. “They describe golf as a game for rich, older and often white people, along with snobby people.”
Currently, Bennett has her heart set on qualifying for a Ladies European Tour card and, along with her manager, her psychologist and her coach, she has a programme in place which is beginning to bring out the best in her. For a start, the psychologist and the coach are helping her to shake off a long-held tendency to be over-technical.
They also are persuading her to make more use of social media in order that she can capitalise on opportunities such as that at last year’s Open Championship where she and Tim Henman teamed up for a Golf Foundation Open celebration. (Henman, the best British tennis player before Andy Murray came on the scene, is a low-handicap golfer at Sunningdale.)
Bennett plans to enter a series of events this year by way of preparing for the LET’s Qualifying School at the season’s end. By then, she is hoping that her confidence levels will be up there with her play. For the moment, though, she admits that she still can feel awkward on those occasions when she is the only Black golfer in a field.
“In one event,” she says, by way of an illustration, “we were playing in threes and each group was accompanied by a volunteer bunker-raker. The other players were chatting away to him, but whenever I tried to join in, he made a point of ignoring me.”
For a golfing situation in which she feels 100 percent comfortable, Bennett picks out the group coaching classes she holds for the women at her club and the coffee and chat that follows.
“I love those chats,” she said. “We talk about everything from miscarriages to life’s barriers – all the things that women have to deal with. They all have their own problems, especially those who have jobs where their colleagues are mostly men.”
As for the status of Black members in your average UK club, she detects “an element” of tokenism. “Golf is elite,” she says. “As things stand at the moment, it’s not for certain people. I’ve always noticed that when you get more than a couple of Black people at a club, white people are uncomfortable. I pick up on the vibrations.”
I asked Bennett if she had noticed any difference in her life in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign. “Not really,” she said, “but it’s been positive in the way it’s highlighted a lot of what goes on.”
On that same theme, she referred to Rosa Parks, the Black woman who helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Alabama. “When one of my classes ask me about myself,” said Nicola, “I tell them that if Rosa Parks hadn’t refused to budge from her seat all those years ago, I probably wouldn’t be teaching them today. And I tell them that I don’t want to have to be silent.”
Though Bennett’s father is well-off, having turned a one-man-band of a mobile-phone hire business into a hugely successful enterprise, she knows that if she were to ask him to sponsor her, he would refuse. (In fact, she has just won herself a contract with Nike.)
“All, along, my father has wanted my sister Rebecca and I to be tough and to stay tough in our white world,” she said. “And we both know that that’s for the best.”
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