‘For me, the sticker was a way of saying, I hear, and I understand’ — The Undefeated

The PGA Tour Champions is finishing its season this weekend with the Charles Schwab Cup Championship in Phoenix. The Champions Tour is a quiet place, populated by former No. 1 players and fan favorites who have earned the right to continue their competitive careers into their golden years.

There isn’t much controversy on the Champions Tour. There are also no African American players on the tour. Which made it all the more remarkable that during the 2020 season, one of the most popular members of the Champions Tour received threats and abuse for supporting his African American son.

Kirk Triplett is one of those golfers known to avid golf fans, having made himself a participant on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour for the last 30 years — by his signature bucket hat. At 58, he is tall but not imposing. He’s polite and affable, with a smile being his default facial expression. Tom Lehman says of Triplett: “He’s very intelligent, very thoughtful. He doesn’t do rash things or make rash decisions. He thinks things through, and he learns about them. I would say of all the players in the tour, there’s not many that garner respect more than Kirk.”

Triplett wasn’t a wunderkind who made birdies soon after learning how to walk. Golf wasn’t even his idea. It was Triplett’s parents who raised the idea of golf for the family.

“Mom and Dad said we need to take up something we can do together on vacation. We narrowed it down to golf or skiing,” said Triplett. “We could easily have been skiers, which probably wouldn’t have lasted very long for me.”

The family pastime stuck, with Triplett eventually becoming one of the best junior players in the state and earning a scholarship to the University of Nevada, Reno. His talent was undeniable but not prodigious. Triplett had a game that was consistent but unspectacular, so when he decided to turn pro, he had to find a way to make a living playing against the best in the world week after week.

“I had to understand what my skills are and how can I leverage them and take advantage of them.” said Triplett. “Eventually, you understand that you have the tools that you need to get better at being yourself.”

Triplett has been good enough to amass 17 professional victories, including eight since joining the Champions Tour in 2012, along with career earnings of more than $14 million. He is also a devoted family man. Triplett and his wife Cathi had twin boys, Conor and Sam, in 1996. After having trouble conceiving again, they decided to adopt. The Tripletts adopted their daughter Alexis (now 20) and son Kobe (now 18) with the help of Debi Rolfing, a foster care parent who is also the wife of longtime NBC golf announcer Mark Rolfing, now with the Golf Channel.

Alexis’ birth parents are Latino, and Kobe’s birth mother is Japanese and his birth father is African American. Kobe was 11 days old when the Tripletts adopted him. “Mark and Debi named him Kobe. Originally, Mark wanted to name him Tiger, but they decided that was too big of a name for him.” Although arguably just as big, Kobe turned out to be an appropriate moniker, as the Tripletts later discovered that he has relatives who live near Kobe, Japan.

Triplett notes that Kobe didn’t have much trouble being biracial growing up. “Every once in a while there might be some name-calling, but nothing serious,” Triplett said. The Triplett family was very different from the other families in the country club world of professional golf, but Triplett said that while they were never met with any racism from his colleagues, there were moments of pushback from society at large. “The tour environment was kind of a bubble and we didn’t have any incidents. But I think as you geographically travel around the country, you get different reactions,” Triplett said. “If a white woman walks into a grocery store with a Black baby, you get different reactions. It could be, ‘What’s that white woman doing with that Black child?’ or ‘You have a Black child, bless your heart for doing that.’ Whatever. For us, it wasn’t about what the world says. We wanted to have kids.”

From left to right: Kirk Triplett, his wife Cathi and their children Sam, Alexis, Kobe and Conor in 2017.

Courtesy Kirk Triplett

When Kobe was 16 and ready to get a driver’s license, Triplett had “the talk” with him. It wasn’t something he had planned to do, or had thought was necessary until that age. “I get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it,” Triplett recalled of having the conversation that has become a rite of passage in many Black homes throughout America. “I mean, for 16 years I didn’t think about having an African American son … he was just my son,” said Triplett. “We didn’t set out to have the conversation. Like most teenagers, he’s darting in and out, so I just kind of caught him when we were in the kitchen at the same time. And I was like, ‘All right, you got your license. You’re going to get stopped by the police. Everybody does. Everybody makes mistakes.’ ”

Triplett continued: “You start talking about what you have to do. License and registration, be respectful, be polite. He kind of shrugged it off, but we were like, ‘No, this is really important.’ There were multiple times where we talked about that. The other boys and our daughter, it was like, ‘OK, this is what you do and off you go.’ But there was significantly more weight to that conversation with Kobe.”

The dynamic went to a new level in May when George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis, and a cellphone video let the world be a witness. Said Triplett: “Every time I watched it, I was like, ‘Get off of him, you don’t have to do that.’ And it’s then that I sort of just got the tiniest glimpse of what African Americans face most days. I realized that it could have been my son.”

Kirk Triplett displayed the Black Lives Matter sticker on his golf bag while at the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship pro-am on Aug. 12. “I understand why you are protesting, why you are walking in the streets. … There’s injustice and inequality; I understand and I agree,” he said.

Phil Masturzo/USA TODAY

Triplett asked himself, “What can a white guy do?” For answers, he went to the web, looking to educate himself on issues and potential answers. He decided that he would put a Black Lives Matter sticker on his golf bag as a way of showing empathy with the movement and support for his son. “For me, the sticker was a way of saying, I hear, and I understand. I can’t fix it. I can’t do anything. But I hear what you’re saying. I understand why you are protesting, why you are walking in the streets. Why you were taking the risks that you’re taking personally. There’s injustice and inequality; I understand and I agree.”

The three words “Black Lives Matter” have come to mean very different things to different people. Some take it as a simple expression of equality, while others see it as an anarchist battle cry. When asked what the phrase means to him, Triplett is measured and thoughtful in his response: “It starts with equal treatment by law. But the more you dig into it, it’s equal treatment and opportunity to education, economic opportunity, social opportunity. So, I put the sticker on the bag so that you know who I am and what I believe, if you have any doubts.”

Triplett didn’t think that a 6-inch sticker would be a thing when he placed it on his bag at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, where he was playing in the Champions Tour event in mid-August. He quickly learned that it was when a tour public relations person sprinted up to him before his opening round to see if he wanted to make an official statement about the sticker. People on the course had indeed noticed, and the backlash came quickly on social media. One golf website called Triplett a dunce and a dupe for anarchists, and there were many other postings around the internet and in Triplett’s mailbox at home.

“When I saw some of the backlash, when I saw some of the responses to this, I was horrified, and I was angry,” said Triplett. “I don’t do a lot of social media anyway, so I didn’t see much of it. My family saw most of it, though, and it was bad.” There was also pushback from Triplett’s colleagues. “If I feel like there were rumblings behind the scene, you know, there were comments. And that was hurtful.”

But the overwhelming response to Triplett’s show of support was positive. “What’s been fantastic is the support from, I don’t want to say unexpected places, but just from a lot of different people. Even on the course at Firestone, we didn’t have many people on the golf course that week, but there were a lot of people who came up to me and said, ‘Hey, love what you did with the bag.’ ”

That support was also manifested online and through fan mail. Longtime friend Lehman found it to be an expression of Triplett’s intellect and his character.

“The stand he’s taken with BLM, and there’s a reason for it. There’s a good reason. And he’s strong enough and courageous enough to go ahead and do it without worrying about what other folks might think,” Lehman said. “Probably the thing that is most remarkable about him is that he has a very deep and sincere desire to make the world around him better. Kirk is more than a golfer. He is a man who happens to play golf.”

Although he has said that he won’t do it forever, Triplett continues to sport the sticker on his bag for now, and he continues to get responses. But to him, getting a response is the main reason for having the message there. It’s to stimulate conversation on the greater issues of justice in society while standing in support of his son.

“The world would be a better place if we could make it more representative of what the world looks like. So, you know, you can walk into any country club and they got all the past presidents lined up, and it’s all white men,” Triplett said. “It’s just the way it is, the way it has been for a long time, but that doesn’t mean it has to be that way in the future. I think that’s one of my hopes for this sticker being on the bag. I want to show people that it’s OK for a guy like me that’s lived in this bubble to say, ‘You know what, we’re going to learn how to embrace these other cultures for their kids, entertainment, venues, our sports, our fans.’ That’s why I have huge hopes for golf.”

Michael Williams is a writer, radio host and television commentator based in Washington, D.C. He covers politics for Voice of America and is a member of the USGA Golf Journal editorial board. He met the Dalai Lama and Mike Tyson in the same year. He made his first hole in one in April of last year.

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