Amir Malik is a man in love with golf. However, golf has not always loved him.
A devout sports fan since childhood in Kingston upon Thames, London, he was fascinated with golf long before he took his first swing. But not knowing anyone other than himself played, Malik settled for a side view.
All that changed in 2012, when his old boss invited him to try his luck at a driving range.
“From the first dance I thought, ‘This is it. This game is amazing,'” Malik, now 38, told CNN.
“I’ve played a lot of sports, but there aren’t too many when you go to bed thinking about it and can’t wait to get up to play again.”
Eventually, Malik was ready to take his game to the next level. Joining a municipal club in 2017, he began competing in tournaments on Sunday mornings.
It was at these events that the “ugly side” of the game was quickly revealed to Malik, who felt isolated by the jarring clash of club culture and his Muslim faith.
The awkwardness began before a ball was hit, as Malik says he received questioning looks for his refusal to take part in gambling on internal competitions, since the game is prohibited in Islam. In the camp, stepping aside to observe salat (Islamic ritual prayers performed five times a day) further increased his anxiety.
“You would feel scared, intimidated. How will people react? he remembered.
“We always made sure to stay out of the way, but they made you feel very, very uncomfortable.”
His uneasiness was exacerbated by the common tradition of drinking in the clubhouse after competitions. Since Malik doesn’t drink alcohol, he had to turn in his scorecard and leave early.
As he got better and played more prestigious courses, the awkwardness often turned to outright hostility. Malik, of Pakistani descent, said he has experienced racism on the golf course.
“You show up and immediately you can feel the vibe and the atmosphere, the way they talk to you, the way they treat you,” he said.
“And you say ‘Wow, just because I have a beard, I’m dark and I don’t look like you, you probably think I can’t play or you don’t think I know etiquette.
“It used to really frustrate me because you feel it, you feel it, you grow into it, you know how it feels. And it’s not until you hit one right in the middle of the fairway, when you’ve smoked a drive, that people think, ‘Oh, he can play,’ and it’s too late.”
Malik’s passion for golf did not sour with his experiences. Instead, they encouraged him to seek out other British Muslims who shared his love of the game.
Buoyed by the “hotspots” of interest he had seen on his travels, in December 2019, Malik named his new venture, the Muslim Golf Association (MGA), and sent out invitations to a day of charity golf at The Grove, a prestigious place. just outside London.
The inaugural MGA event would be open to all faiths; places of worship would be provided and there would be no alcohol or gambling. Malik was stunned by the answer. Within 24 hours, all 72 places had been booked, with more than 100 people on the waiting list by the end of the week.
The event, which took place in August 2020, raised £18,000 for charity, and the sight of over 60 players praying together in the Grove courtyard marked a defining moment for Malik.
“That to me was just amazing,” he said. “That we could get the guys together, feel safe and comfortable and just be on our own platform.”
Since then, the MGA has partnered with the Marriott hotel chain to host a three-series tournament starting in 2021, with the winners of this year’s edition securing an all-expenses-paid trip to the Turkish golf paradise of Belek.
“I looked at golf and thought, it’s a sport played by white, old, rich men, period,” Malik said. “Now we have the opportunity to show the world that non-whites can play this game and we are very good at it.”
The overwhelming response to MGA events among Muslim women has been equally exciting for Malik. After launching a trio of pilot sessions in Birmingham last year, 1,000 players have already signed up for the series of women-only test events scheduled across the country over the next two months.
Malik believes that Muslim women in the UK are being prevented from participating in more sports due to a lack of women-only facilities and sessions.
The MGA has no dress code, which means women can play in a niqab (face veil) and abaya (long robe) if they wish, and it contracts out sections of fields for its exclusive use for test events, to ensure a comfortable experience for new players
“The response has been absolutely unbelievable, mind-boggling,” Malik said. “I tell women, ‘I don’t care how you dress, how you look, just come with a smile and a pair of sneakers and we’ll take care of everything else.’ We haven’t done anything revolutionary, we’ve just made it accessible and the demand is incredible.”
To date, MGA events have attracted more than 1,300 participants. Going forward, the organization aims to take its efforts global in order to reach as many new players as possible.
Growing up, Malik had to look to other sports for Muslim role models, such as English cricketer Moeen Ali. From Muhammad Ali to Kareem Abdul-Jabaar to Mohamed Salah, countless Muslim athletes have built brilliant careers in a variety of sports, but professional golf offers a relative paucity of examples.
According to a survey cited by England Golf, the country’s governing body for amateur golf, only 5% of golfers in England belong to ethnically diverse groups.
By working alongside groups like the MGA, England Golf COO Richard Flint believes the barriers that have contributed to a lack of diversity in the game can be understood and broken down.
“No one should feel uncomfortable walking through the gates of a golf club or facility simply because of their age, race, ethnicity or gender,” Flint told CNN.
“As a modern, forward-thinking organization, we want golf to be open to all and change negative perceptions about the game that belong in the past.”
While Malik hopes to see Muslim players competing on professional tours soon, he says he did not form the MGA to produce a Muslim Tiger Woods.
“If that happens as a byproduct, then great,” he said. “But if we can get the golf industry to take a hard look at itself and become accessible, open and diverse, then that’s a great achievement.
“The golf course does not discriminate. The ball doesn’t ask what color, race or gender you are… however, it has been a very closed club that has been open to very few people.
Malik thinks it’s time for a change. “Golf has a lot of great values and traditions, which I still think it needs to hold firm, but it needs to evolve…if it were to open up and let other cultures and traditions bring all those wonderful things to this game, it could be absolutely wonderful.” .