Amir Malik wants to make golf more inclusive for Muslims



CNN

Amir Malik is a golf lover. Yet golf hasn’t always loved him back.

Passionate about sports since his childhood in Kingston upon Thames, London, he was fascinated by golf long before he took his first swing. But not knowing anyone else who has played, Malik settled for a side view.

Everything changed in 2012, when his former boss invited him to try his hand at a driving range.

“From the first ball, I was like, ‘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 go back to playing again.”

Eventually, Malik was ready to take his game to the next level. Joining a municipal club in 2017, he started competing in Sunday morning tournaments.

It was during these events that the “ugly side” of the game was quickly exposed to Malik, who felt isolated by the jarring clash of club culture and his Muslim faith.

The discomfort would start before a ball was hit, as Malik says he drew questioning looks over his refusal to participate in in-house competition betting because gambling is forbidden in Islam. On the course, stepping aside to observe salat – ritual Islamic prayers performed five times a day – further heightened his anxieties.

“You would feel scared, intimidated. How will people react? he called back.

“We always made sure to be out of the way, but you felt very, very uncomfortable.”

His discomfort was exacerbated by the banal tradition of drinking at the club after competitions. Since Malik doesn’t drink alcohol, he had to hand over his time card and take an early exit.

As he improved and played on more prestigious courses, the discomfort often escalated into outright hostility. Malik, who is of Pakistani descent, said he experienced racism on the golf course.

“You show up and immediately you can feel the vibe and the atmosphere, the way you’re spoken to, the way you’re treated,” he said.

“And you’re just like ‘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 the etiquette.

“It really frustrated me because you feel it, you feel it, you grow into it, you know how it feels. And it’s only when you hit one straight down the middle of the fairway – when you’ve smoked a drive – that people then think “Oh, he can play”, and then it’s too late.

Malik’s passion for golf has not been soured by his experiences. Instead, they prompted him to seek out other British Muslims who shared his love of the game.

Encouraged by the “pockets” of interest he had seen on his travels, in December 2019 Malik gave his new business a name – the Muslim Golf Association (MGA) – and sent out invitations to a day of charity golf at The Grove, a prestigious venue. just outside London.

The inaugural MGA event would be open to all faiths; prayer facilities would be provided and there would be no alcohol or gambling. Malik was stunned by the response. 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, held in August 2020, raised £18,000 for charity, and the sight of more than 60 players praying together in the Grove courtyard marked a watershed moment for Malik.

“It was just amazing to me,” he said. “That we can get the guys together, feel safe and comfortable and just be on our own platform.”

Play is paused to allow golfers to pray at an MGA event in Carden Park, Cheshire in May.

The MGA has since teamed up with the Marriott hotel chain to stage a three-series tournament starting in 2021, with the winners of this year’s edition securing an all-expenses-paid trip to the Turkish golfing paradise of Belek. .

“I looked at golf and thought, it’s a sport played by old, rich, white men, period,” Malik said. “Now we have the opportunity to show the world that non-white people can play this game and we’re damn 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 tasting events planned across the country over the next two months.

Malik believes Muslim women in the UK are being held back from participating in more sport due to a lack of facilities and women-only sessions.

The MGA has no dress code, which means women can perform in a niqab (face veil) and abaya (long robe) if they wish, and it rents out sections of classes for its exclusive use for initiation events, to ensure a comfortable experience for new players.

“The response has been absolutely amazing, mind-blowing,” Malik said. “I tell women, ‘No matter what you’re wearing, what you look like, just come in with a smile and a pair of trainers and we’ll take care of the rest.’ We didn’t do anything revolutionary, we just made it accessible, and the demand is incredible.

The MGA has hosted Women's Learn to Golf sessions across the country in 2022.

To date, MGA events have attracted over 1,300 attendees. Going forward, the organization aims to expand its efforts globally to reach as many new players as possible.

Growing up, Malik had to look to other sports for Muslim role models, like England cricketer Moeen Ali. From Muhammad Ali to Kareem Abdul-Jabaar to Mohamed Salah, countless Muslim athletes have carved out glittering careers in a range of sports, but professional golf offers a relative scarcity of examples.

Malik's sporting hero Moeen Ali in action against Pakistan in September.

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 such as the MGA, England Golf COO Richard Flint believes the barriers that have contributed to the lack of diversity in the game can be understood and eliminated.

“No one should feel uncomfortable walking through the doors of a golf club or facility simply because of their age, race, ethnicity or gender,” Flint said. at CNN.

“As a modern, forward-thinking organization, we want golf to be open to everyone and change negative perceptions around the game that are a thing of the past.”

In 2021, the MGA hosted The Race to Arden, with the final event held in the Forest of Arden in Warwickshire.

While Malik hopes to see Muslim players on pro tours soon, he says he didn’t form the MGA to produce a Muslim Tiger Woods.

“If it happens as a by-product, then great,” he said. “But if we can get the golf industry to look long and hard at itself and make itself accessible, make itself open and diverse, then that’s a huge achievement.

“The golf course does not discriminate. The ball doesn’t ask what color, race or gender you are…yet it’s a very closed club that has only been opened 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 good things at this game, it could be absolutely wonderful.

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