Before Wednesday, Tadd Fujikawa, a 27-year-old professional golfer from Honolulu, was leading an interesting and challenging golfing life.
He weighed just under two pounds at his premature birth and today is only an inch over five feet, but can routinely drive the ball over 300 yards.
He qualified for the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot as a 15-year-old amateur, the youngest player ever to do so.
He made the cut in the 2007 Sony Open in Honolulu as a 16-year-old amateur.
His father, Derrick, who started Tadd in judo and golf, pled guilty to selling meth to undercover narcotics officers in 2009 and subsequently went to drug rehab and prison.
Last October, via an Instagram posting, Tadd wrote about his struggles with depression and anxiety and urged others to address their mental-health needs. Two months later, he won the Hawaiian State Open for the second time, seven years after winning it for first time. His payday was $10,000.
Before Wednesday, the sum total of Tadd Fujikawa’s life and times and 14 Tour events—including six Sony Opens—had been as an abject but little-known lesson in the struggle to fulfill youthful athletic promise.
Then came Wednesday, when Fujikawa announced, in a moving and intensely personal Instagram posting, that he is gay, becoming the first even faintly famous male touring pro to make such an announcement. His statement is brief and should be read in full to be fully appreciated but here is one of the most poignant parts:
“I spent way too long pretending, hiding and hating who I was. I was always afraid of what others would think/say. I’ve struggled with my mental health for many years because of that and it put me in a really bad place. Now I’m standing up for myself and the rest of the LGBTQ community in hopes of being an inspiration and making a difference in someone’s life.”
The community of golfers is broadly conservative, with a baked-in sense of privacy and modesty, rooted in the game’s stoical nature and Scottish and Calvinist roots. If your ball settles in a divot, it’s bad form to moan. Golf is not a place to practice let-it-all-hang-out.
So after reading that snippet from Fujikawa’s announcement, or first learning of his revelation, you might have expected all hell to break loose, right?
On its Twitter feed, the PGA Tour—the strait-laced, buttoned-down PGA Tour—tweeted out a link to Fujikawa’s statement, with this just-the-facts-ma’am summation: “He is believed to be the first openly gay male professional golfer.”
The USGA-the modern, this-is-us USGA—wrote on its Twitter feed, “The best thing about golf is that it welcomes everyone to play, and play for a lifetime. Thanks, Tadd Fujikawa, for reminding us that our love of the game unites us all. Your bravery is an inspiration.”
And aside from those two statements, nobody in golf seemed particularly moved or shocked or anything by what Fujikawa revealed. Not publicly, anyhow. There was nothing on Tiger Woods’s Twitter account about it. Nothing on the LPGA’s. Nothing on the First Golfer’s account. Nothing, for that matter, on 44’s, either.
That’s worth noting because in 2013, after the journeyman NBA player Jason Collins announced that he was gay, Barack Obama called him and said later at a press conference, “He seems like a terrific young man, and I told him I couldn’t be prouder.”
On a personal level, Fujikawa’s life has shifted dramatically here. On a professional level, maybe his golfing fortunes will change as well.
The muted response of Fujikawa’s statement may be described as progress. Of course, Fujikawa is largely unknown on the world’s golf stage, which at least partly explains why his announcement is not a bigger news story. The Hurricane Florence storm surge, the Stormy Daniels book announcement and the general noise produced daily these days would explain that, too. It’s a crowded world.
But the day will come when a Tour player, well-known or not, will say that he is gay, and that day will be made easier by what Tadd Fujikawa did on Wednesday. The world will surely be a better place when people can, if they choose, casually reveal their sexual orientation and not suffer for it. Don’t ask, don’t tell now seems like ancient and painful history, a sort of cousin to separate but equal.
Women’s golf is ahead of the men’s game in this regard. In 2014, when Michael Sam entered the NFL draft as an openly gay player, there were already active LPGA players who were openly gay, at least within the often-insulated confines of the women’s tour. “The attitude has changed so much,” Patti Rizzo, the women’s golf coach at the University of Miami, told me in 2013. “When I’m recruiting, a girl will say, ‘Coach, I’m gay.’ They’re so casual about it. Nobody cares.”
The day will come when that phrase, nobody cares, will be so understood there will be no similar proclamations, not in sports, not in politics, not in the arts, not in plumbing. Fujikawa’s statement takes a step in that direction.
For now, though, there will surely be people, good-meaning or not, who will wonder why such announcements are necessary. But those people don’t really understand what it’s like to feel different, closeted, afraid, to live life “pretending, hiding and hating,” to repeat Fujikawa’s powerful words. How awful must that be? Now he can start to really breathe. When he was born, 27 years ago at two pounds, he surely needed help to do that. He’s led some life.
After Jason Collins revealed he was gay, Obama said at a press conference, “One of the extraordinary measures of progress that we’ve seen in this country has been the recognition that the LGBT community deserves full equality—not just partial equality, not just tolerance, but a recognition that they’re fully a part of the American family.”
A half-decade later, those words seem only more self-evident and less necessary to repeat.
The Monday qualifier for the 2019 Sony Open is on Jan. 7. Tadd Fujikawa has a good track record there, and now he has another chance at it. If he plays in it, it will be a different experience in some ways, and exactly the same in others. The scorecard doesn’t care a whit about a golfer’s sexual orientation. The guess here is that Fujikawa’s playing partners won’t care either. They will care about beating him. Professional golf is a game of survival of the fittest, for all of them.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.