Amir Malik is on a drive to make golf more inclusive for Muslims
Amir Malik is a man in love with golf. Still, golf hasn’t always loved him.
A devoted sports fan since his childhood in Kingston upon Thames, London, he was fascinated with golf long before he took his first swing. But since he didn’t know anyone else playing, Malik settled for a sideline.
That all changed in 2012, when his former boss invited him to try his hand at a driving range.
“From the first ball I thought: this is it. This game is incredible,” Malik, now 38, told CNN.
“I’ve been working out a lot, but there aren’t that many when you think about it when you go to bed and you can’t wait to get up and start playing again.”
Ultimately, Malik was ready to take his game to the next level. He joined a municipal club in 2017 and started participating in Sunday morning tournaments.
It was during these events that the “ugly side” of the game was quickly revealed to Malik, who felt isolated by the shocking clash of club culture and his Muslim faith.
The discomfort would begin before a ball was hit, as Malik says he drew questioning looks at his refusal to participate in betting on internal competitions, as gambling is forbidden in Islam. Out on the track, stepping aside to observe salat – ritual Islamic prayers performed five times a day – further heightened his fears.
“You would feel scared, intimidated. How are people going to react?” he remembered.
“We always made sure we were out of the way, but you felt very, very uncomfortable.”
His uneasiness was compounded by the commonplace tradition of clubhouse drinking after games. Since Malik does not drink alcohol, he had to hand in his scorecard and leave early.
As he got better and played more prestigious jobs, the discomfort often escalated into outright hostility. Malik, who is of Pakistani descent, said he has experienced racism on the golf course.
“You show up and you immediately feel the vibe and the vibe, the way you’re addressed, the way you’re treated,” he said.
“And you’re like, ‘Wow, just because I have a beard, I’m brown 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 up in it, you know what it feels like. And it’s not until you hit one in the middle of the fairway – if you’ve smoked a drive – do people think, ‘Oh, he can play’, and then it’s too late.”
Malik’s passion for golf was not soured by his experiences. On the contrary, they urged him to scout other British Muslims who shared his love of the game.
Encouraged by “pockets” of interest he’d seen on his travels, in December 2019 Malik named his new venture – the Muslim Golf Association (MGA) – and sent out invitations to a charity golf day at The Grove, a prestigious venue just outside London.
The MGA’s first event would be open to all religions; 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 were booked and by the end of the week there were more than 100 people on the waiting list.
The event, held in August 2020, raised £18,000 for charity, and the sight of more than 60 players praying together in the courtyard of the Grove marked a turning point for Malik.
“That was just amazing for me,” he said. “That we could get guys together, feel safe and comfortable and just be on our own platform.”
Since then, the MGA has teamed up with hotel chain Marriott to host a tri-series tournament in 2021, with the winners of this year’s edition securing an all-expenses-paid trip to Turkey’s golfing paradise of Belek.
“I watched golf and thought, it’s a sport played by white, old, rich men, period,” said Malik. “We now have a chance to show the world that non-whites can play this game and we’re damn good at it.”
The overwhelming response to MGA events among Muslim women was equally exciting for Malik. Following the launch of a trio of trial sessions in Birmingham last year, 1,000 players have already signed up for the series of women-only trial events scheduled for the next two months across the country.
Malik believes that Muslim women in the UK are being held back from taking up more sports due to a lack of facilities and women-only sessions.
The MGA has no dress code, meaning women can play in a niqab (face veil) and an abaya (long cloak) if they wish, and it rents out sections of courses for exclusive use for trial events, to provide a comfortable experience for new players.
“The response has been absolutely incredible, amazing,” said Malik. “I tell women, ‘I don’t care what you wear, what you look like, just come with a smile and a pair of sneakers and we’ll take care of everything else.’ We didn’t do anything revolutionary, we just made it accessible and the demand is incredible.”
To date, MGA events have attracted more than 1,300 participants. Looking ahead, the organization wants to expand its efforts globally to reach as many new players as possible.
Growing up, Malik had to watch 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 stellar careers in a variety of sports, but professional golf offers relatively few 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 establishing relationships with groups such as the MGA, England Golf chief operating officer 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 doors 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 everyone and change negative perceptions around the game that are a thing of the past.”
While Malik hopes to see Muslim players competing on professional tours soon, he says he didn’t form the MGA to produce a Muslim Tiger Woods.
“If that happens as a by-product, then great,” he said. “But if we can get the golf industry to take a good look at itself and make itself accessible, open and diverse, 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 has been a very closed club open to very few people.
Malik believes it’s time for a change. “Golf has a lot of exceptional values and traditions, which I think should still be held firmly, but it needs to evolve…if it opened itself up and other cultures and traditions could bring all that great stuff to this game it could be absolutely amazing are.