Hall of Fame golfer Tiger Woods was just twenty-one years old when he won the Masters tournament in his first full season as part of the PGA TOUR in 1997. Sports writers called it the “greatest performance by a professional golfer in more than a century.” The 270 score, 18-under-par broke the tournament record set by Jack Nicklaus in 1965. Woods accomplished many firsts that day, and as he put on the green jacket, he became the first Black athlete to win the Masters.
It was an important moment that transcended sports. Woods’s victory came at Augusta National, whose chairman Clifford Roberts once said, “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be Black.” The Georgia golf club founded by nine-time PGA TOUR champion Bobby Jones barred non-white members until 1990. It wouldn’t admit female members until 2012.
While discrimination in golf is an undeniable part the past, Neera Shetty envisions a different future. Shetty is the PGA TOUR’s executive vice president and deputy general counsel. She also runs the organization’s office of social responsibility and inclusion. The PGA TOUR is a global company with members hailing from around the globe. In 2021-22, there are ninety active international members from twenty-eight countries and territories outside the United States. And while the group is not responsible for the problematic history at places like Augusta, golf’s most cherished courses have hosted PGA TOUR events since the 1930s.
Shetty, the child of Indian immigrants, is spearheading significant efforts to help the PGA TOUR leverage its size, power, and influence to drive change throughout golf and the world of professional sports. “There has been some progress, and there is more we can do,” Shetty says. “We can do more because there is huge potential for impact, and the PGA TOUR knows we can lead by example.”
Shetty joined the organization in 2008 and quickly started talking about issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The PGA TOUR’s diversity journey matured over the years as leaders looked to represent the country’s shifting demographics in its workforce and provide a product that interests people from all backgrounds.
In 2020, Shetty was instrumental in creating an inclusion leadership council made up of eight PGA TOUR executives who report to senior leaders. The team identified eleven initiatives and recruited sixty volunteers to participate in elevating DEI practices.
The outcomes were tangible. Commissioner Jay Monahan announced a ten-year, $100 million pledge to support causes related to inclusion and racial equity. In less than three years, the PGA TOUR’s tournaments have already raised more than $30 million towards its commitment. The organization is collaborating with the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour to help African American amateurs go pro and is working with corporate partners such as United Airlines to establish travel grants for teams from historically Black colleges and universities. Additionally, the PGA TOUR is introducing diverse on-air talent to its media platforms.
As players, employees, fans, and partners responded to Monahan’s pledge, Shetty and her colleagues realized they could build upon the PGA TOUR’s momentum. “When the golf industry comes together, we can accomplish a lot,” she says. “We wanted to work with other organizations to take DEI to the next level.”
The PGA TOUR joined forces with organizations including the Ladies Professional Golf Association and the United States Golf Association as well as companies like Titleist and Callaway to create Make Golf Your Thing. The industry-wide effort exists to bring greater diversity to golf and attract new athletes of all backgrounds. Six work groups built around education, talent acquisition, procurement, human resources, player development, and marketing help “welcome more people into the game in their own way.”
Shetty worked behind the scenes to manage all legal aspects of the collaborative effort while also executing a long-term plan to reduce energy consumption and implement sustainable practices. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, she turned her attention to making sure the world’s best golfers were still able to play on the game’s biggest stage. With countries in lockdowns and foreign nationals facing various restrictions, she led a delegation that successfully lobbied the White House for a travel ban waiver.
While these measures are leading to more long-term results, progress can seem slow. However, Shetty knows that change will come. It takes time, purpose, persistence, and repetition. Golfers perfect their game by getting out on the greens every day and practicing. They must establish a rhythm. Shetty is taking the same approach when it comes to DEI.