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How an Internet letter turned into a $100,000 grant for two Black golfers

February 25, 2021

Daniel T. Augustus IV hails from Bermuda, where he was introduced to golf at 3 years old after his father passed. He couldn’t afford to play the sport so he made do with rolled up paper towels as balls and wooden sticks as clubs. To support his family he began working at 12, always making sure one of his various odd jobs was at a course to keep him close to the game. That spirit, coupled with natural talent, parlayed into a playing opportunity at Paine College in Augusta, Ga. Since graduation he has tried to make a living on the mini-tours, supplementing his playing career by working construction. “You do what you have to do for what you love,” Augustus says.

Jordan Bohannon grew up outside of Detroit. A frequent victim of racial slurs and prejudice in the Michigan golf scene, Bohannon was routinely turned away from driving ranges toward the end of nights only to see white players who arrived after him allowed to use the facilities. Despite a successful high school career, few big-name colleges called, sending Bohannon to North Carolina Central. As a fledgling tour pro, the pains of his youth remain fresh, inspiring him to create his own foundation aimed at improving relationships between local golf courses and minorities in public school systems. “There’s still a lot of work to be done to create a game more inclusive to people of all backgrounds,” Bohannon says.

In February Augustus and Bohannon were awarded $50,000 grants to help pursue their dreams. The grants were born from an Internet letter, spurred by national outrage. They came to pass by the person who wrote that letter, and his drive to not let his words go to waste.

• •

The emails, Facebook comments, Instagram messages came in persistent waves. Maurice Allen read them out of respect, though most didn’t show respect towards him.

“Figured if someone took the time to write, they must have something to say, even if what they say was intended to hurt me,” Allen says. “Some were to provoke me. A lot of it was just ignorance. There were different degrees of wrong but the loudest tended to be the worst.”

In one sense Allen, a Long Drive champion, was used to it. In an industry big on entertainment, he is one of its most flamboyant stars. Allen is also Black, and because of his race that showmanship is often misconstrued as vanity, and throughout his career there have been no shortage of people to let him know it. But this was different.

In June, during the throes of the national protests against systemic racial injustice, Allen wrote a piece detailing his experience as a minority in a mostly white sport. It was brutally honest and passionate, revealing the exclusive climate golf has tried to bury in the past is still very much present. The letter also gave Allen the chance to share his dream, writing of his long-standing efforts to secure financial backing for golfers that came from HBCU backgrounds. It was the patronage, Allen said, other players received from sponsors or country clubs that Black golfers desperately lacked.

Following the article his inbox was filled with backlash. Many said he didn’t know what he was talking about, that those of color were treated just the same as their white counterparts. Others accused him piggybacking off the protests for personal gain. Some just saw it as an opportunity to put a man down.

Allen insists he is not one whose drive is fueled by critics; that approach leads to madness. His motivation is spurred by a greater purpose. He likewise knew he put himself out there and understood the consequences if he didn’t back them up. It was time to get to work.

• •

Allen was not new to fundraising. His MA360 Foundation already had success with the “Saving Christmas” drive, which helps grade school children build saving accounts. He had also tried to raise money for Black pros before, although it was more of a side project to his long-drive career. With the World Long Drive circuit suspended its year amid the pandemic, and with his letter giving his HBCU mission the attention it had been seeking, Allen made the foundation his primary focus. His goal: $40,000 to split between two players with professional aspirations.

He dedicated his summer to research, conversation, questioning. He had an idea of what golfers needed to get to the next level; Allen himself is a mini-tour player. But this was too important for assumption or to rely on his own experience. He tapped into an array of voices across the game’s spectrum to shed light on his blindspots.

“I know the struggle. We all know the struggle. But what were the differences?” Allen says. “And a lot of stuff that may sound simple I didn’t know, or at least didn’t give enough weight to.”

Allen knew the aforementioned support from individual and group benefactors subsidized the game’s developmental circuits. That backing is more than just blank checks. It’s arranging for host families at different tournament sites. Making sure players have access to coaching and sports psychologists. Getting guys fitted in the right equipment and making sure that the equipment isn’t outdated. Ensuring diets aren’t dictated by fast-food menus. Groups like the Advocates Pro Golf Association were building an infrastructure for minority golfers. Still, Allen’s investigation revealed that his grant recipients had to understand what they were up against, that they needed to be judicial with whatever money they received.

However, Allen began to wonder if the $20,000 each would be enough. He also sensed he was called to help more than two golfers. Allen moved the goal posts on himself, raising the fundraising goal from $40,000 to $1.2 million, with $50,000 per year to be distributed to six golfers each every year over a four-year span. “The country said it was listening to us for once, so why settle for something less than I know we can achieve?” Allen says.

It was ambitious, and problematic, because it was a decision made off assumption rather than evidence. Mobilizing funds proved to be more difficult than imagined. Allen discovered there was a dissonance in what was being said and what was being done. A number of companies had pledged to do what they could, Allen noted. But when pressed to put the pledge in writing, the private sector suddenly seemed to lose its checkbook.

Scott Halleran

“It was so damn upsetting,” Allen says. “We’re in this summer where everyone says, ‘We want to help! We want to help.’ Then you say, ‘Well, here’s how you can help.' The emotions of the summer seemed to wane and phone calls stopped getting returned.”

The answers he did get were just as frustrating. It was one thing to get accused of trying to take advantage of the national protests by fans; quite another to hear that same doubt from companies and investors, who wondered what was in it for Allen and if the money was going to be funneled his way.

“A number of them thought I was trying to fundraise for my own ambitions of trying to make it to tour,” Allen says. “I’m like, ‘Yo, I’m 40! This is for the next generation.’ But the skepticism stayed. For whatever reason, they couldn’t understand why a long-drive contestant wanted to help out other golfers.”

Painful as the nos were and the reasoning behind them, Allen realized he needed to distance himself from the process, for two reasons. He personally knew a number of guys who would be applying for his grant when it was officially announced and he didn’t want any calls of favoritism when it came to selection time. He also wanted a board of reputable personalities to show the money would be going to good use. Through his MA360 Foundation, Allen started the “Grow the Game Initiative” and created a three-person panel that would independently choose the grant’s recipients. On the panel were:

-Jimmie James, a former ExxonMobil executive who served on the Board of Directors for the Coalition of Economic Empowerment and The Caddie School for Soldiers.

-Jamila Johnson, a former men’s and women’s Division I head golf coach at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Not only did Johnson establish the programs, the university is the only HBCU that has an accredited PGA Golf Management Program.

-Bob Baldassari, a 30-year PGA pro who has been nationally renowned for his innovations in grassroots, junior and business development initiatives.

“We met during the summer,” James said of his relationship with Allen. “We started to talk about what he was doing. What caught my attention was his commitment to getting more African Americans onto the various professional tours. Maurice had already done so much, but this was a massive undertaking.”

The panel established a blueprint for Grow the Game applicants. Each candidate had to submit a three-minute video of why they were a worthy choice, their bio, a detailed schedule and budget for the 2021 season and a strategy for marketing themselves to potential sponsors and partners. Exhaustive as that application process might seem, the exercise itself was a microcosm of the plight Black golfers faced: To show the lengths a player is willing to go to chase their dream, that they understood the roadblocks inherent to that journey, and that they were armed with a plan to hurdle—or in some cases, plow through—these roadblocks.

Additionally, there was a philanthropic component. Getting more Black golfers on the top circuits would be inspirational to many, but to Allen and the panel, that is an inspiration with a short shelf life. The candidates needed to demonstrate how they were going to use their gifts to help other follow their path onto the professional tours. This would ensure the Grow the game iniative became a sustaining force.

The Grow the Game initiative began accepting nominees on Oct. 1. The fund had been accepting money since the summer, but Allen turned on the full-court press. He promoted the initiative daily through interviews and outings and long-drive performances and social call-outs. He paired his upcoming appearance in January’s LPGA’s Diamond Resorts Pro-Am with a pledge to generate donations. He made his pitch wherever he could.

Despite his efforts, corporate America remained on the sidelines. Allen compares the situation to a natural disaster. “An earthquake happens, everybody is willing to help out right way,” he says. “One week later, it’s old news. People move on. ‘Oh, the protests? From summer? That’s still going on?’ They don’t want to hear it.” Adds James: “It was a challenge. Maurice had a plan for raising money. It hasn’t quite developed as we thought it would [with companies]. He had to look for other ways.”

However, when it was time to see how much was raised at the end of January, Allen discovered help was available. Just not for those he had been banking on.

Daniel Augustus IV plans on making Bermuda proud. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

Cliff Hawkins

Despite not a single company having donated to the cause, others heard the call and responded. Those others, Allen says, are just regular people who read the article and saw his social media pleas. Regular people who just wanted to do some good.

“The past year has taught us if you want change, we have to do it themselves, and golfers, no matter the color, saw this as an opportunity to bring change to the game,” Allen says. “This was all individuals, and they stepped up.”

It was nowhere close to his $1.2 million aspiration, but it was a damn good start, to the tune of over $100,000. More than $60,000 than his initial objective last summer, and more than enough to get two professional careers in motion.

“To raise that much in a short amount of time is a testament to Maurice,” James says. “It’s not easy getting something like this off the ground.”

The panel made its selections for the inaugural class in Augustus IV and Bohannon. Each will receive $50,000 this year, handed out in $5,000 monthly installments. Allen’s only stipulation is that they must attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open and the PGA Tour’s qualifying school.

“I feel that I’m not as far along with my game as I could be if I had a situation similar to my competition with the same type of access and funding,” says Bohannon. “The $50,000 is going to help me take all the necessary steps to be the best player I can be.”

Adds Augustus: “Where I’m from, people that look like me don’t play golf. We work at the golf courses. I’m hoping I can accomplish something to show kids that doesn’t have to be that way.”

James says the two were picked not just for their games but also for their character. They understood the responsibility that comes with the grant, and the desire to make their careers more than themselves.

“Both are positive guys. They understand adversity. They have big goals but realistic plans to achieve them,” James says. “If you’re looking for guys to get behind, Jordan and Daniel are stories to root for.

“Hopefully this money gives them a chance to let their stories be known.”

• •

Allen and the panel have no interest in a victory lap. To them the race is just beginning.

“The launch is the toughest part,” James says. “But Maurice has done it. We now have a plan going forward. And we don’t care how many doors we have to knock on, we’re going to get where we need to go.”

The next leg involves getting money for at least two women golfers for the 2022 season in addition to another two men. Better yet, after getting shunned from business over the summer, Allen is starting to get welcomed in. The foundation struck a deal last week with apparel brand Greyson to outfit Bohannon and Augustus this season, and Greyson is launching a “Grow the Game” line with the proceeds going to Allen’s foundation. Allen also says the LPGA has reached out in the past few days about a meeting to ask how they can help.

As for Allen, he still gets messages daily. The negative ones remain, but over the last eight months the notes have become less combative, instead inflected with encouragement, apology, offers to help. Allen is a proud man; he initially says while these words are nice, just like the garbage he used to endure, they don’t affect him. “You can’t seek validation from others,” he says.

But when asked if those positive words could be from the same people who donated, the ones who are allowing Bohannon and Augustus to have a fighting chance and showing Allen he’s not alone, he lets his guard down. “Hey, this is all we’ve ever wanted. To be heard.”

Because to be heard, Allen says, is to be respected.