Golf, like many sports, is riddled with a long history of systemic racism, which has contributed to a significant lack of representation of Black players. The numbers speak for themselves: of the roughly 24 million recreational golfers in the United States, only 3% are Black, and a mere four Black men have held PGA Tour status.
Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers of all time, infamously experienced racism as a teen playing at the Navy Golf Club in Los Angeles’ suburbs, even being required to carry a receipt proving he had paid to use balls and golf carts.
As Today’s Golfer recounted, when Woods was 15 and the new winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship, he “was approached on the driving range by a then club employee who, according to numerous sources, told him he would have to leave because there had been a complaint about a ‘n*****’ hitting balls on the range.”
But despite the challenges and obstacles faced by Black golfers, there is hope.
Birmingham, Alabama, creative sports agency Knight Eady is taking a swing at golf’s racial inequalities. In April, they launched the Drive, Chipp, & Putt Fore Success Junior Initiative in nearby Huntsville aimed at exposing Black elementary school students to golf.
The program provides approximately 640 students at four majority-Black elementary schools with golf equipment and two weeks of golf lessons. The students get the support they need to play golf beginning as early as fourth grade, and they can stay involved up to two years after graduating from high school. Most of the elementary students have seen a golf course or live nearby one, but simply have never been on the putting green or touched a golf club.
Central to the program is a two-week course taught by the students’ gym teachers. They receive the necessary materials from Knight Eady but cultivate the instructional module themselves.
“The great thing about this whole program is the physical education teachers in the district at these schools — they were on board immediately, there was no resistance,” says Mac Howard, coordinator of athletic and extracurricular activities for Huntsville City Schools.
Beyond the in-school golf lessons, the students also had the opportunity to attend Knight Eady’s HomeTown Lenders Championship from April 24-30, at The Ledges Golf Club in Huntsville. At the tournament, students were able to watch professional golfers play and interact with program coordinators.
This creates an opportunity for students to observe golfers’ practice, engage with them, and meet the coordinators of the program.
“It allows them to have a behind-the-scenes experience with not just the sport of golf, but the world of golf and the opportunity that it presents,” Caleb Schmidt, vice president of Knight Eady, tells Word In Black.
Schmidt says he initially reached out to Huntsville City Schools to implement the program in high schools.
At the time of the program’s inception, Jemison High School in Huntsville was the only Title I high school that previously had a golf program, but Schmidt says they struggled to attract 14 to 18-year-olds.
“We were trying to convince them to take it up out of the blue and give up their free time to participate in it, which is a little bit backward,” Schmidt says. “We don’t really blame them for not wanting to play.”
And Schmidt soon realized the goal was much bigger.
“The end game of this initiative is not just to have a high school golf team, but to begin exposing kids at the elementary school level to the sport of golf,” Schmidt says.
By exposing them to golf early on, the program also aims to remove barriers to entry and unlock potential talent.
“Most of the kids in these demographics have regular access to football, basketball, and baseball,” Schmidt says. “The majority of these kids don’t have access to golf, so maybe there are kids that are gifted in the sport of golf that never had a chance to develop that talent.”
Students need activities that equip them with as many opportunities for success as possible, and golf fits into that. There are many lessons that translate off the green, like developing business and networking skills.
“Being able to carry your own weight on the golf course is going to help propel you from a business perspective, from a networking perspective, from a social connectivity perspective,” Schmidt says. “Ultimately, if we can help that become more of a reality for some of these kids, we think it will benefit them in the long run.”
Knight Eady and its partners have established a scholarship fund for students who participate in the program for at least two years. There are also many golf scholarships available from HBCUs that students aren’t always made aware of throughout their middle and high school years.
“Putting golf in a position where some of these kids can actually turn that into an athletic scholarship that benefits them from an educational perspective, that really excites me,” Schmidt says.
Knight Eady’s initiative is still in its first year, but it could certainly help break down stigmas and stereotypes about who the sport is primarily for. And by doing so, it could ensure that future generations of Black golfers are not held back by a lack of access, bigotry, and discrimination.