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Detroit tour stop creates event for Black golfers, offering PGA and LPGA exemptions

March 22, 2021

Leon Halip

When the PGA Tour brought the Rocket Mortgage Classic to Detroit Golf Club in 2019, diversity and inclusion were a top priority for the tournament. In a city with the largest Black population in the United States, they had to be. In turn, the event was awarded the tour’s inaugural Fair Way Award for, among other things, having a volunteer force that reflected its neighborhoods and its use of several minority-owned businesses to help conduct it.

Now the tournament is taking things even further.

On Monday, it announced the creation of The John Shippen, a four-day event that will include a two-day tournament June 27-28 at Detroit Golf Club comprised of top Black men and women amateurs and professionals without status already on the PGA and LPGA Tours. Winners will get an exemption into that week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic and the LPGA's Great Lakes Bay Invitational, scheduled for July 14-17 at Midland (Mich.) Country Club.

The first round will be held on the South course and the second on the North course, where the PGA Tour event is held. The women will play in two-person teams in foursomes and fourballs, the same format as the LPGA event later the following month, while the men will compete in individual stroke play.

The event then wraps up with a two-day sports business summit that will offer paid internships and scholarships for students.

“Ultimately, everything we’re doing is designed to provide opportunities to create diversity in golf on and off the course,” Rocket Mortgage Classic executive tournament director Jason Langwell said. “How can we create opportunities on the golf course but also have other opportunities for more Black men and women?

“So it’s not just a playing opportunity, but the networking that comes with this. Participants get to network and talk with tour pros, corporate partners and others that could spawn into something in golf or beyond.”

Shippen was the first Black player to compete in the U.S. Open, doing so in 1896 at Shinnecock Hills, where he was also an assistant and the sport’s first American-born golf professional. He registered for the tournament as a Native American—his mother was Shinnecock—instead of Black. When some of the English and Scottish competitors threatened to boycott if Shippen and club caddie Oscar Bunn were allowed to play, USGA president Theodore Havemeyer said the tournament would proceed anyway and they backed down.

After the first round of the two-day tournament, Shippen was tied for the lead. But the next day he made an 11 on the 13th hole on his way to shooting 81. He tied for fifth.

The size and makeup of the field for The Shippen is still being decided, Langwell said, but a committee that includes current PGA Tour player Harold Varner III, HBCU college coaches and leaders from the PGA Tour, PGA of America and other organizations will work to select participants. The field is expected to be filled by April and finalized the following month. The tournament will also pay for all travel and lodging for those competing as a way to remove one of the many barriers that still exists in golf.

Sommer Woods, the co-founder and Chief Inclusion Officer at Woods & Watts Effect, which specializes in diversity, equity and inclusion, worked with Chicago-based Intersport to help create the four-day event, which will also be part of a one-hour special on CBS leading into the final round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

“It’ll show that there are a lot of talented Black men and women who can do well in golf and that there are some who have been in the trenches for a long time,” said Woods, who got her start in the game as a nine-year-old in Selina Johnson’s Hollywood Golf Institute, a junior golf program in Detroit geared toward introducing the sport to urban minority youth, and later played at Talledega College in Alabama. “It will also elevate who John Shippen is. History is important in a sport that hasn’t talked about Black people much in its history. It will also expose black and brown people to the game and the sports industry.”

It's also the latest in a turn of events across golf to focus on minority involvement and inclusion. Earlier this year, the PGA Tour expanded its partnership with the Advocates Pro Golf Association. The Farmers Insurance Open also provided an exemption to a player from the APGA. And the Genesis Invitational offered its Charlie Sifford exemption to a player with minority background.

Golf still has a long way to go, Woods said, but her excitement over another step forward is palpable.

“How do you engage the demographic of a Black city in this sport that’s not always inclusive?” she said. “We have to be intentional about inclusion. That broadens the bigger conversation. Ultimately, the hope is that we can help eliminate the barriers that are in the game. And when you talk about them and discuss them, then you can remove them and if you do that you don’t end up duplicating history.”