Do you all remember a couple years ago that amazing Nike commercial about Rory McIlroy idolizing Tiger Woods and eventually playing alongside him? I think I’ve watched that video a hundred times and it still causes a lump to rise in my throat. So many of us can relate to young Rory watching Tiger work his magic and being inspired by it.
Seeing Tiger on our screens matters. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, if you are white or black, or if you’ve been a long-time player or just beginning. We can all recognize and appreciate greatness.
But let’s set that aside. Class is now in session, welcome to Psych-101! Our first order of business is defining what social learning theory is.
Social learning theory (SLT) is a belief that learning occurs through observation, imitation, and other social interactions. Essentially, if you see something done enough times, you develop the ability to imitate that behavior through observational learning.
Psychologist Albert Bandura is the mastermind behind this phenomenon. Much of his work involved observing kids and their behaviors. His most famous experiment, “The Bobo Doll” Experiment, set out to learn about how people develop aggressive behaviors. Bandura and his team divided a large group of children into different experimental groups, an aggressive behavior group, a non-aggressive behavior group, and a control group (this group had no kind of experimental manipulation). What the team found was that those groups exposed to the aggressive behavior model lashed out, as they witnessed, against the inflatable doll and engaged in violent behavior. Whereas, the children exposed to non-aggressive behavior acted less violent.
The work of Dr. Bandura is important because, as we all know, kids are extremely impressionable, so much of who they become depends on the things they learned at a young age. We may not be kids anymore, but we never stop learning.
Why does SLT matter in golf? I’ll frame it in the context of representation.
It’s no secret that there’s a large gender disparity in the golf industry. The coverage time of the PGA vs. the LPGA is a perfect example of this. And whether you’re cognizant of the discrepancy or not doesn’t mean it’s non-existent! Just for a moment, let’s step back and take a look outside of TV and the pros, look around at your local course. You'll be lucky if you see one or two other women at the course all together. How are more women supposed to feel welcome on the course, if there's no one else there that looks like them? If there's signs telling them where to play from? If there's a 'men's only lounge' and no such thing for women? If the majority of the clothing options in pro-shops are for men and there's a tiny wall in the back corner full of fluorescent pink options for women. SLT suggests that women need to see more women on the course and more of the course open to them in order to learn the game and feel comfortable in it.
There’s been a wave of new golfers, especially women, since the start of the pandemic and this is not how I want them to meet the game. So much of my life I have been the only girl, or the only black person on the golf course and to see how that hasn’t changed is disappointing--but not surprising. It wasn’t until I stopped playing competitively that I even understood the kind of psychological impact that being a “token” had on me. The ‘token Black person’ isn’t something that we place onto ourselves, it’s granted to us by our white counterparts because we are the ones they feel safe around. I am pretty confident in saying that for my white golf friends that I was one of maybe two of their friends of color, if not the only one. And once I quit, and they all went off to play collegiately, we didn’t have as much in common anymore.
It was a harsh reality for me to come to terms with and to be transparent, it’s something I still struggle with. At first I was angry, but then I recognized that my former friends had no choice. They simply didn’t know, how could they when I had just figured it out myself? Golf hadn’t made diversity its priority and that hasn’t changed in my 19 years of playing.
Golf has a sexist, racist, and classist history. It was never meant to be a sport for women, or people of color, or for the poor--and yet people from all walks of life have a love for the game.
We owe Tiger Woods a lot for the explosive boom that he gave golf, but he’s not alone. We owe it to Lee Elder, Renee Powell, Nancy Lopez, Lee Trevino, Michelle Wie, Vijay Sighn, and so many others who challenged the traditionalist culture that plagues golf.
But we also can show our appreciation for brands who do the work to make the game more inclusive in our day-to-day lives. Take some time to learn about these Black-owned businesses taking the industry by storm.
What we can learn from SLT is that life can and does imitate art (in this case media). Representation, big or small, matters and the future of golf depends on how we all can make a conscious effort to be more inclusive.