SLOW BUT STEADY
advocates seek ways to stimulate top-level participATION among minorities IN COLLEGE AND PROFESSIONAL GOLF
Former Stanford University standout Tiger Woods has single-handedly crushed all racial stereotypes about Blacks’ ability to play golf at the highest collegiate and professional levels. But while Woods’ success has spawned more interest in the game among Blacks, there’s no tangible evidence more Blacks will follow him in the pro ranks any time soon.
The fact is, Blacks are virtually nonexistent at the professional level. The highly visible Woods is the lone Black on the PGA Tour and Andy Walker is the only Black competing on the Buy.com Tour, which is one rung below the PGA. On the women’s side, the story is even worse. No Black women are playing full time on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. The last to do so were UCLA star LaRee Sugg and Nakia Powell, who played the tour two years ago. People familiar with junior, collegiate and pro golf say that in order to get a better understanding of the reasons behind the shortage of Black golfers capable of competing as pros, a look at the game’s feeder system, pre-college and college programs, is necessary.According to the most recent statistics compiled by the NCAA, Black males and females combined (historically Black colleges and universities included) make up 4.8 percent of the 10,793 athletes who played NCAA golf during the 1999-2000 school year.“We’re not even close to having decent participation numbers,” says Barbara Douglas, president of the National Minority Golf Foundation, an organization devoted to increasing minority participation in the sport. “We’re not where we’d like to be. But we do have more (junior level) kids in the pipeline, and that’s encouraging.”Pete McDaniel, senior writer for Golf Digest and co-author, along with Tiger’s father Earl Woods, of the best-seller Training a Tiger, contends that starting up golf academies is a viable method of developing minority junior golfers who one day will be able to contend for college scholarships and possibly play professionally. These academies, similar to those in junior tennis, would be managed and operated by PGA-trained professionals. Youngsters who show potential and have a desire to play would be identified and placed in an academy setting where they would get the best of academics, golf instruction and tournament competition.“You put kids in that kind of program for 12 years and you create a situation where they’re in an environment that will help them become good enough to compete against the very best,” McDaniel says. “Bring in 50 kids a year and if you get 10 who can play at that level, that’s what needs to happen. That’s how you develop a pipeline for top-of-the-line golf talent.”Among college golf’s elite, there’s more of a Black presence than on the pro tours, but not by much. Andia Winslow and Kimberly Brown (Yale University), Kevin Hall (Ohio State University), Stephen Reed (Texas A&M University), Kerrie Davis (University of Mississippi), Daniel Diggs (Central Connecticut State University) and John Fizer (University of Virginia) are considered to be the most promising Black collegiate players in America.
Teams on the RiseFor the most part, Black colleges haven’t fared well in the annual NCAA golf tournament. Yet, there are teams on the rise, including perennial powerhouse Jackson State University, along with Tennessee State and Florida A&M universities, plus the women’s teams from Jackson State, Bethune-Cookman College, and Hampton and Alabama State universities.“The game is growing faster than ever and more kids are starting to play at an early age,” says Jackson State coach Eddie Payton. “Black colleges may still be a little behind our mainstream counterparts when it comes to players’ skills and the level of competition we play. But at Jackson State, I believe that with the right set of circumstances and with the right set of athletes, things can happen. If we can keep getting there (NCAA tournament) repeatedly, we can win it eventually.”Payton’s program appears to be on the verge of having a breakthrough in Division I. Jackson State made history in 1996 when its men’s team, led by Tim O’Neal (who played on the Buy.com Tour in 2001) earned an NCAA tournament berth, the first for a Black school. Since then, the men have made it back to the nationals on two other occasions.Last spring, the JSU Tigers women’s team, composed of five Black players, recorded another first when it received an NCAA bid. In 21 tournaments, JSU’s women had seven top five finishes and placed in the top 10 three other times. Spencer Witherspoon is the marquee player for the men. Akita Taylor and Tierra Manigault led the way for the women.In NCAA competition, however, the JSU Tigers, both men and women, have been shut out, finishing in the lower tier of their eight-team regional field each time. No HBCU has ever advanced to NCAA golf’s championship finals.“We’ve been fortunate to make history twice,” Payton says. “For an HBCU, what we did was unheard of. But for us, it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
Composition, competition and ControversyBlack college golf programs have received a mountain of criticism in recent years for fielding teams with White players. Critics say Black schools should award scholarships to Blacks, who more than likely have a greater need for scholarship money than their White golfing associates. The other side of this argument posits that because Division I golf is so competitive, it’s necessary to bring in the best players, regardless of race.“If you can’t get an all-Black team of the best golfers available, why not recruit minorities who have a love of the game and give them an avenue to help pay for college?” says William “Bill” Dickey, president of the National Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association, which has doled out $1.2 million in scholarship funds for 700 youngsters over the past 18 years. “That’s the whole reason why HBCUs exist in the first place — to provide an opportunity for those who might not otherwise get the chance to go to school,” Dickey says.McDaniel agrees with Dickey, but adds the notion that Black schools can truly compete with the major golf powers is misguided. “I applaud them for trying,” McDaniel says. “But it’s really an unattainable goal. To compete against those schools, you have to get the best golfers. There aren’t that many top-flight Black juniors to begin with and HBCUs aren’t going to get them. They won’t even get the second-tier players.“What happens is that the Black schools wind up bringing in Whites and foreigners who weren’t even recruited by the top Division I schools. Even when Black schools get to the NCAA regionals, they’re not very competitive. That’s why I say HBCUs should concentrate on playing at their own level of competition (in conference and against teams whose players are at the same skill level). Give those scholarships to Black students who have a love for the game and let them reap the benefits of getting a college education.”Payton doesn’t understand why there’s such a stir about the racial makeup of golf teams at Black colleges. Jackson State’s men’s team, for example, has both Black and White players. Payton points out that he’s only doing what other Division I programs who want to win and compete are doing.“We’ve always made a conscientious effort to recruit the best minority athletes,” Payton says. “That’s always the No. 1 priority. But there’s not a large pool (of top-rated Black golfers) to draw from, so we expand our recruiting efforts to fill in with whoever we feel can best help our program.“When it comes to competing, I don’t see why HBCUs are being held to a different set of standards than White schools. When you look at Duke and Kentucky’s basketball teams, they’re mostly Black. But I don’t hear anyone talking about those Black players taking scholarships from White players.”
An Avenue for Black WomenWith so much emphasis on Black males making it in golf, previously, there had been no available avenues for the development of Black female players. Only four Blacks have ever played full-time in the LPGA — tennis great Althea Gibson, Renee Powell, LaRee Sugg and Nakia Powell.In an effort to help change that trend, LaJean Gould started the Women’s Collegiate Golf Classic, the only event held specifically for Black college females.In seven years, the Atlanta-based tournament has grown and is now a 14-team invitational that since 1998 has been recognized as the HBCU women’s national golf championship.“I got involved because there was nothing out there to help develop women’s golf at HBCUs,” says Gould, president and founder of the classic. “The whole purpose is to provide Black females the opportunity to play and compete and to learn how the game can benefit them in networking and their careers.”The classic also serves as a fund-raiser for HBCU’s women’s programs. So far, Gould’s organization has contributed $35,000 to the schools. Still, the tournament goes beyond hosting a championship. The classic lends assistance in helping youngsters get scholarship money and in securing summer internships in the golf industry.“We’re trying to establish a sound system for young ladies to get an education by using golf as a means to do that,” Gould says. “We’re doing more to encourage girls to take up the game at an early age, and hopefully, that might be the start of getting more Blacks on the pro tour in the future. For that to happen, these youngsters will need their parents or some organization to help them get there. That’s a big part of our mission.”
Family Tiesand ConnectionsEven as Blacks have focused more on college as a route to the pro golf tour, there may be another paradigm shift taking place. Until the 1950s and the Arnold Palmer-Jack Nicklaus era, hardly any of the golfing legends — including Sam Snead, Charlie Sifford, Ben Hogan or Lee Elder — attended college, as is the case with recent arrivals of young superstars such as Sergio Garcia, Ty Tryon and Si Ri Pak. Still, there are several reasons that an influx of Blacks on the pro golf tours in the immediate future is unlikely. The families of most minority junior golfers can’t afford to pay for the quality teaching it takes to adequately hone game skills to compete against elite-level players. The price tag for specialized instruction from a PGA teaching pro can run anywhere from $250 to $400 a month, depending on where you live and the reputation of the instructor.How far a youngster advances in their quest to play at the highest level has a lot to do with their support system. In this case, parents, grandparents, or other family members play a major role, paying lessons, tournament entry fees and travel expenses, while providing supervision at practices and moral support as the player learns to adjust to different cultures and the pressures of playing at an ultra-competitive level.Dr. David Wooding, whose 16-year-old son Joshua is the highest-rated Black junior golfer in the country (57th in the Golf Week rating in late December), understands how it all fits together. Joshua Wooding, a high-school junior, is already being courted by college golf’s elite programs — Stanford University, UCLA, Oklahoma State University, University of Arizona, Arizona State, the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. Aside from Wooding, Erica Battle, Amber Davis and Tiffany Rogers are viewed among the young Blacks that college recruiters have their eyes on.During the fall and winter months, David Wooding and his wife, Karen, will spend four to five hours a week helping Joshua during practice sessions. In the summer, they take turns accompanying their son to out-of-town tournaments nearly every week.“In order for a youngster to play at the national level, they must have a love for the game,” says David Wooding, who is an emergency room physician in Riverside, Calif. “Love for the game breeds everything else if it’s available (golf lessons, practices, tournaments).“For the parent, it’s a sacrifice and a commitment to spend time with that child. A big part of it involves mentoring and helping Joshua to understand that as a minority, people look at him differently. They don’t expect him to be in the top 10. So, he’s had to learn how to overcome that and be prepared for whatever he’ll face in these national tournaments.”
More than moneyIn golf, being properly prepared has a lot to do with getting top-grade instruction. It makes the critical difference for youngsters who aspire to play at the highest level. It also takes money; however, money isn’t the only barrier that hinders minorities from becoming good enough to compete against the best.Oftentimes, minority juniors with potential don’t compete in top-level tournaments, so there’s no way for college coaches to evaluate their competitive capabilities. As a result, they get overlooked by the major golf schools.The National Minority Golf Foundation has been instrumental in helping minority juniors gain access to high-level tournaments by securing 100 exemptions for 50, non-invitational national-caliber events every year. The foundation decides on who plays in these events and the results have been positive.The number of Black juniors playing at the national level has increased by 11 times over the last four years, from 12 in 1998 to 150 in 2001. The American Junior Golf Association-sanctioned tournaments are the most prestigious on the junior circuit, but the International Junior Golf Tour, Plantation Tour and World Junior Cup also draw a lot of interest from college scouts.“Providing these exemptions is one of the things we’re doing to help these kids get to the next level,” says Douglas of the NMGF. “There are minority golfers who can play, but it’s important for them to go up against the best and be able to compete on tough courses.“It’s OK to play in minority tournaments, but you have to play at the national level to get the attention of the college coaches. They want to see how a kid plays against the top people. Since they have no track record at that level, exemptions give them that opportunity,” Douglas says.While there’s no shortage of events for minority golfers to compete in, many are not sanctioned by the American Junior Golf Association and other top-rated organizations. Therefore, there’s a fear these non-sanctioned tournaments do more harm than good for developing golf talent. Many leaders in the minority youth golf movement believe the issue of the proliferation of unsanctioned tournaments will have to be addressed in the near future.As an industry, golf has enjoyed moderate success in introducing the sport to the minority masses. However, there’s no avenue to help retain promising Black youngsters so they will stick with the game and continue to develop. And with Tigermania continuing to captivate the interest of Blacks, the PGA recognizes that golf is expanding its appeal to a more racially diverse following.As part of its efforts to reach out to ethnic groups, the PGA has established programs that create business opportunities for minority vendors and suppliers. To help facilitate that, the PGA conducts major trade shows each year aimed at attracting minority businesses who want to sell products to the golf industry.Not only does the PGA have a minority internship and scholarship program to expose minorities to careers in the golf industry, it also has endorsed a Professional Golf Management curriculum at several colleges, including Ferris State (Mich.), Mississippi State, New Mexico State, Pennsylvania State, Florida State, Arizona State, Campbell (N.C.), Coastal Carolina (S.C.), Methodist College (N.C.), Clemson (S.C.) and North Carolina State universities. Discussions have started to expand the program to include HBCUs.“We believe we have done a good job and know we can always do better,” Earnie Ellison, PGA director of business and community relations told afrogolf.com about the PGA’s efforts to reach out to minorities. “We constantly evaluate all our programs and are aggressively looking for ways to grow our business and the game of golf.”Nobody can reasonably expect any future Tigers to suddenly appear on the scene. But there’s an air of positive expectancy about what the future holds for Black golf. Greg Marshall, executive director of the National Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association is convinced that better days are ahead.In March, Marshall’s organization will be set to expand its role beyond assisting college-bound students financially. By early spring, the scholarship association will have established a national database for all junior minority golfers to help college coaches keep track of promising prospects. Additionally, NMJGSA joined forces with Golf Week magazine to produce a national ranking system for minority juniors.“It’s been a slow and steady process,” Marshall says about the state of Black golf today. “Certainly, the water level is rising, but is the boat floating yet? I don’t know. The economics of the sport make it tough for a lot of parents to foot the bill.“But the good news is that more kids are playing and now we’ve got more resources to help them. We’re going to continue to create an awareness of what golf has to offer, and we’ll continue to do what we can to give our youngsters more visibility,” Marshall says.
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