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"At some clubs they think I’m going to rock up in a turban and a rickshaw"

As a successful businessman and pillar of the community, Jas Athwal is exactly the kind of man who gets elected captain of his golf club. But 20 years later, he still feels like an outsider because of the colour of his skin. Mark Townsend went to meet him. Photography by Ben Ingham.

"At some clubs they think I’m going to rock up in a turban and a rickshaw"

When Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997 there was a widely discussed perception that golf, perhaps, was on its way to becoming a more diverse sport. Here was a 21-year-old with an African American father and a Thai mother who looked set to change the face of golf, which he did, of course, only the faces in golf have changed very little. "Tiger in some ways has been a great gift and a great curse because it’s made people comfortable," Damon Hack of The Golf Channel told the BBC’s Iain Carter on the excellent Golf and Race podcast. "The game must be incredibly healthy. That’s not necessarily the case; it can make people get a bit lazy."

One of the other voices on that podcast belonged to Jas Athwal, a charismatic figure from Bradford in Yorkshire. His experiences in golf have been rather more jarring. "You turn up at golf clubs and you see people’s curtains twitching and looking out and thinking 'nobody’s ordered a taxi or a takeaway, what’s this guy turned up for?'" he says. "Those are the barriers. It’s very hard to change that attitude. I don’t know what the fear is. All we want to do is go and play golf."

Twenty years ago, Jas was made captain at Waterton Park near Wakefield in Yorkshire, becoming the first ever Sikh to captain a British golf club. Around the same time, he started up the Asian Golf Society, which funds free coaching to Asian kids who otherwise would never pick up a golf club. And yet despite his pioneering role in the sport, Jas Athwal has never sat down with anyone from a governing body or a major organisation within golf to offer his insights into how more Asians could be encouraged to try or take up the game.

"For some reason you see a lot of Asian lads playing but not playing in clubs," he says during a round together at my home club in Leeds. "I’ve no idea what the barrier is but if people from the governing bodies want to engage more, I use the old analogy: if you’re going to build a house for a blind person, ask them what they want. Ask where he wants his sockets and how he wants his TV to work.

"There are a lot of pale faces around the table at which the decisions are made; you won’t see any diversity. I don’t want to be known as the moaner who thinks they’re hard done by because I’m not. If someone asks me, I’ll answer them, but I won’t go around beating the drum."

There are few people I’ve met in my many years writing about golf who I’ve enjoyed listening to as much as Jas. In the five hours we spend together, he describes how he came to England as a young boy to bury his father, who had arrived the year before to work and send money back home to India. He refers to himself as a ‘retired shopkeeper’, although the truth is Jas is one of the best-connected shopkeepers you’re likely to meet.

"I don’t want to be part of something because it ticks a box, I want someone to welcome me with open arms"

"People talk about the right sort of person for certain golf clubs," he says. "I’m a former chairman of Bradford Bulls rugby league club, I sit on numerous boards, I represent the Queen as deputy lieutenant for West Yorkshire. What more do you want? I don’t want to be part of something because it ticks a box, I want someone to welcome me with open arms."

He talks of the governing bodies, who "will just pay lip service and say we hear you but they’re not actually listening." The strange looks he still gets when walking into a golf club where he is not known are, he believes down to lingering fears born from a lack of education on the issue. "I think they think that there will be a corner shop on every tee," he says when describing the attitude of the members. "At some clubs they think I’m going to rock up in a turban and in a rickshaw, some of them are amazed that I turn up in a car and that I can speak English."

He is partly joking, but the humour is also, in part, a defence mechanism. The  more we speak, the more you realise that he very simply finds the situation absurd. "I’m 58 and I’ve been this colour all my life. You’re not going to change the thinking of the bloke who has God Save The Queen as his ringtone and has the Union Jack in his front garden. He’s not going to engage with me at the golf club so why try?

"I don’t just sit and talk about race all the time. It’s not for me to change, it’s up to the people who run the game. The Asian population is growing and if you don’t engage then you’re missing out."

In the Golf and Race podcast Jas recalled a time when he pulled into a golf club car park and the club professional wouldn’t let him get out of his car until he was ‘validated’ by the member he had been invited to play with. It’s tough to hear. "I feel it, it’s only 10 seconds but I can feel it," he says. "It’s not enough to leave but I can sense it. At least I knew where I stood back in that car park in the 1980s. It didn’t bother me at the time; it was annoying as I just wanted to play golf and get to know people. It was more disappointing than anything. It’s the spineless nature of it all."

“The game is growing now massively but it’s not quite happening yet with the Asian youngsters”

Humza Rafique was part of a 16-strong shootout at the Tour Final. It was the closing act to the inaugural season of the 2020protour, a schedule of tournaments around the north of England. He’d just recorded a level-par 71 at Huddersfield GC, which saw him just miss out on guaranteed money. A strong back nine got him into the £500 head-to-head play-off, though — one shot from 120 yards to a small temporary green with the wind howling off the left. He hit a gap wedge and bagged the cash. His mates, none of whom play golf, were all watching online.

"Golf is something I always did," the 24-year-old explains when we catch up on Zoom. "People have always been intrigued by me being a professional golfer. My parents are originally from Pakistan and I started at Wike Ridge in Leeds on the par-3 course when I was seven years old. I was in the Tiger Cubs junior section before I moved to Cookridge Golf Club where there were no Asians in my age group. There was an Asian girl who was seven years older than me, Kiran Matharu, and her brother Froggy. Kiran got on to the Ladies European Tour. Other than them though, there was nobody."

Humza agrees that passion for football and cricket within the Asian community means golf remains a largely untapped sport. "My dad and his friends play recreationally but there are very few Asian golfers who play at clubs," he says. "The game is growing now massively but it’s not quite happening yet with the Asian youngsters. You’ll see a few Asian lads come to the range but they’re just having a knock."

England Golf, the governing body for amateur golf in England, says it doesn’t have statistics on how many Asian golfers there are. Figures from 2018 indicated that five per cent of golf club members came from BAME communities (source: England Golf Membership Questionnaire, SMS Inc), a figure which rose to eight per cent of general participants, outside of membership. England Golf is currently commissioning new research on the subject, which, it claims, will be used to inform future policies and projects.

Over the summer, the governing body launched ‘Membership: Give it a Shot‘, a campaign around golf being an inclusive game based on four core pillars — equality, diversity, family and community. When Jas made the front page of the Yorkshire Post two decades ago, he would have hoped that we wouldn’t be still talking about diversity and equality.

After school, Humza took up a golf scholarship at Wingate University in North Carolina, where he graduated with a 3.5 Grade Point Average, the equivalent of an upper second-class degree in the UK. "I was a bit apprehensive about the States," he admits. "You hear some stories about narrow-mindedness but there were never any issues with coaches or the school itself. In fact, I’ve never found any issues in golf and never been discriminated against. I’ve played for the North of England and been in the England regional squad and never had a problem." One of the reasons he offers for this inclusivity and acceptance is interesting: "Other sports are very subjective whereas golf is very objective as you’re going by your scores."

"It’s driven by the pound. Ask the R&A what their boards look like in terms of diversity"

Humza works for an accountancy company to subsidise his golf. He has a ranking on the EuroPro Tour in 2021 and says he’s going to have a proper go at becoming a tournament professional, at least for the next couple of years. We chat about Aaron Rai, whose father immigrated from India in the 1950s and whose mother is from Kenya. Rai, from Wolverhampton, won the 2020 Scottish Open on the European Tour in the middle of a sensational run of form that saw him break into the world’s top 100. Conversation then turns to Vijay Singh and Tiger back in the day, and the hope many had that they might change some people’s thinking or even convince the governing bodies it was time to address the game’s startling lack of diversity.

At club level, Jas Athwal has a very simple outlook. "If we can get more people to become members from all community groups and all different backgrounds, the clubs will be richer, as opposed to the parochial way that it is right now. If the government told the R&A that it would be given £5 million extra to get three Asian members on the board, and clubs would get £50,000 for ensuring a minimum 10 per cent of club members came from the Asian community, they would be quicker than Usain Bolt to act. It’s driven by the pound. Ask the R&A what their boards look like in terms of diversity."

But on a human level, Jas knows things can change. Why? Because he’s seen it first-hand time and time again. "Back in the day I played rugby with a lad and he came up and introduced himself and he had a swastika on one hand and a National Front tattoo on the other. But he genuinely didn’t see colour, he was a lovely bloke and looked after me on the field all day. He would be the first person in when someone was calling me names.

"So, in about 1987, I collared him at the Christmas party. He said he knew what I was going to ask him before going on to explain that he had never engaged or met an Asian or black bloke. After a few weeks he said he had realised that we’re all the same. We all loved rugby, loved getting stuck in and loved a pint. I saw him a few years ago and he’d had all the tattoos lasered off. Fair play to him, brilliant."

Though we’ve only just met, this seems to be typical Jas. "I don’t get too disappointed or too downhearted by it all," he insists. "I’ll persevere and crack on and the big wheel will turn. One day someone might ask if I want a game of golf – and they’ll come away thinking that I’m the same fat little Indian bloke that I was all those years ago."

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