‘Don’t You Think Golf Can Use Any Dose of Coolness It Can Get?’
In the 1990s, a 20-something Wendell Haskins was starting to make his way in New York City, confident that his feel for African-American-infused pop culture would soon make him a connoisseur of cool.
As the son of former National Urban League senior vice president William Haskins, Wendell had mentors that included venerated figures of the civil-rights movement like Vernon Jordan. As a roommate of Sean (Diddy) Combs, Haskins absorbed the lessons of tireless entrepreneurship and applied them to his interests in hip-hop, fashion and creative development with artists including LL Cool J, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Terrence Howard.
That led to a close association with the NBA, where Haskins helped put on events like halftime shows at the All-Star Game, even designing the jackets worn at the NBA's 50 Greatest Players ceremony in 1997. It led to enduring friendships with icons like Julius Erving and Magic Johnson and earned Haskins a reputation among influential blacks as a tastemaker and trend-spotter.
"Wendell knows everybody, and everybody knows Wendell," says George (Iceman) Gervin, one of those 50 Greatest. "You want to look good, or you want to put together a successful event that people will remember, you talk to Wendell."
Haskins' skill set and connections would have served him well in any number of endeavors. Improbably—some might say quixotically—and definitely idealistically, for the past two decades he has focused on the world of golf.
As the founder of a tournament and former PGA of America senior director of diversity and multicultural initiatives, Haskins has put himself on the forefront of the struggle to increase the presence and prominence of African-Americans in golf.
"I love the game and its history, and I love black people," says Haskins, 49. "I know all three of those entities become valuable to the world the more they intersect. And that's what I try to do."
Those who have embarked on a similar journey in the past have experienced frustration more than fulfillment. After decades in which black golf resided on the game's periphery, a breakthrough phase seemed in the offing after a steady series of events in the 1990s: private clubs admitting their first African-American members in the wake of Shoal Creek, Michael Jordan as the most famous athlete in the world becoming an avid golfer, the spectacular emergence of Tiger Woods and the establishment and immediate growth of The First Tee. Still, in 2017 the percentage of black men and women on the professional tours, at public and private courses, and in decision-making positions in the golf industry and leading organizations remains relatively unchanged.
According to National Golf Foundation figures from 2016, the number of African-American golfers has dropped to 800,000, down from a high of 1.5 million in 2007. But the NGF says there is evidence of more black golfers in the junior segment (defined as ages 6 to 17). In the mid-1990s, only one out of 17 junior golfers was non-white. The ratio today is nearly one out of three.
On the PGA Tour, Harold Varner III is the only active African-American player and only the third to have a playing card this century, joining Woods and Joseph Bramlett. Joe Louis Barrow is retiring after 18 years of leading The First Tee and will be succeeded by another African-American, Keith Dawkins. The golf industry's only other top black executive is the president of Nike Golf, Daric Ashford. Perhaps most telling, of the nearly 28,000 PGA of America professionals—first point of contact for lessons and welcoming players to the game—only 114 members and 46 apprentices are black.
Also of concern are possible attitudinal changes resulting from a country that is increasingly divided along political and racial lines. Although President Donald Trump is the first inhabitant of the White House to own golf courses and is a single-digit player, his belief that golf should be an "aspirational" game is at odds with the goals of golf's organizations, which want minorities to make up a bigger percentage of overall golfers. The culture clash was apparent before the U.S. Women's Open at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey, when two prominent African-Americans, NYU history professor Jeffrey Sammons and golf historian Calvin Sinnette, resigned from the USGA's museum committee after writing letters urging the organization to cut ties with Trump because of his controversial statements on gender and race.
Dom Furore / Golf Digest
The golf landscape seemed more promising in 2000, when Haskins began his tournament. He had begun playing only two years before, after his curiosity had been piqued by NBA players' conversations. "So often, it was all about golf, where they had played or were going to play next, some idea about the golf swing," he says. "I was surprised—they were clearly doing it all the time."
Haskins was brought into the game by another African-American arbiter of urban cool, Michael Vann, then a part owner of Shark Bar, a former soul-food kitchen on the Upper West Side known as a hangout for luminaries like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. Haskins built his game by hitting thousands of balls toward the Hudson River at the Chelsea Piers range and endured beginner's trials on Brooklyn's Dyker Beach Golf Course.
The graduate of historically black Hampton University also read Sinnette's Forbidden Fairways and Pete McDaniel's Uneven Lies. When Haskins learned that the golf tee was invented by an African-American doctor, George F. Grant, in 1899, he conceived of his event and began synergizing his relationships with entertainers, athletes and sponsors. He set up an honoree, a charity and a purpose of inclusion to inspire new golfers. For the past 18 years, the event has been played at Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, N.J.
Through the tournament and his friendship with frequent Barack Obama golf partner Alonzo Mourning, Haskins was the force behind Charlie Sifford receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2014, two months before Sifford died.
Renee Powell, the second black woman to play on the LPGA Tour—there are currently three African-Americans playing regularly on the tour, Cheyenne Woods, Mariah Stackhouse and Sadena Parks—grew up on and still runs Clearview Golf Club near Akron, Ohio. That's where her father, Bill, became the only African-American to design, build, own and operate a golf course. Renee says that Haskins' staging of The Original Tee Golf Classic presented by BMW has been respectfully nostalgic.
"Wendell is such a dynamic host," says Powell, 71. "He makes sure everyone who attends feels very special, so that the newcomers realize that we are not only allowed in this world, but that it offers opportunity. It reminds me of the UGA [black-operated United Golf Association] tournaments in the '50s, where Joe Louis and Billy Eckstine would come, and there were men's and women's and junior competitions at the same time. We gathered together, and that was important then, and it's important now. Because the climate in our country right now is not the greatest climate for a minority."
Says Haskins: "These are cool people playing a cool game. They influence other people to do things that they do, and the golf industry has not done enough to use these influencers as assets to market and popularize the sport. I mean, don't you think golf can use any dose of coolness it can get?"
Cool has become a mantra as golf tries to broaden its audience and get younger. But hopes that the game might be getting more diverse is usually the result of short eruptions of enthusiasm. The male and female winners of the nationally televised Mile High Showdown World Long Drive Championship, Maurice Allen and Troy Mullins, are African-Americans. Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry shooting two 74s at a Web.com event demonstrated real golf chops, making him the most influential golfer among pro athletes.
Dom Furore / Golf Digest
BUILDING A BRIDGE FROM HARLEM TO THE HAMPTONS
Still, introducing more blacks in golf, and keeping them as lifelong players, remains a challenge. The minority golf programs that have reached the most kids, The First Tee and the Tiger Woods Foundation, are clear that their priority is not to produce golfers, but to bring life skills and educational opportunities to disadvantaged youth.
The Bridge Golf Learning Center tries to do both. Bob Rubin, a retired commodities trader, has filled a street-level space within a luxury Harlem condo complex with instructors and TrackMan-powered simulators, open to the public for a fee but primarily for underprivileged seventh- through 10th-graders enrolled in a free after-school curriculum that blends STEM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through golf. The hope is that the students will assimilate into the culture, skills and relationships the game offers to enrich their lives. When they travel to a course, it's occasionally The Bridge in the Hamptons, where Rubin asks a $950,000 initiation fee from members. Of his students, he asks only that when they achieve success in the outside world, they give back.
"We want our kids to have access to the social capital that golf affords," says Farrell Evans, a former golf writer who is the primary designer of the program. "If they set a goal of working at Goldman Sachs, the relationships and code of behavior they learn from golf can get them an internship. If they become a plumber, some of their customers will be from the connections they gained through golf."
The program most oriented to finding kids an easy and inexpensive place to play is Youth On Course, a Northern California Golf Association-originated concept in which charitable donations subsidize green fees, allowing kids 6 to 18 to play nine- or 18-hole rounds for $5 or less. On the 650 participating public courses in 12 states, some 30,000 kids—about 30 percent minorities—are members of the program. They played about 80,000 subsidized rounds in the first half of 2017. The program also has a caddie and intern program. For those with financial need, the organization puts $50 into a college fund for each round caddied. Youth On Course comes closest to Harold Varner's simple mantra for growing the game among minorities: Make golf "extremely" affordable.
"WHO'S GOING TO PLAY GOLF?"
Such programs have been applauded but also looked upon skeptically by the game's insiders. Top instructor Sean Foley, who is white, attended historically black Tennessee State, where he was exposed to how the development of minority golf can be in conflict with the black experience. Besides coaching Tiger Woods for four years, Foley has been shepherding Cameron Champ, the 22-year-old, exceptionally long-hitting Texas A&M senior who was impressive in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills and was a member of the U.S. Walker Cup team.
"Race has never not been a serious issue in this country," Foley says. "In most African-American communities, the last thing a kid is worried about is whether he's going to play golf. When the substantial majority of black kids are on government-subsidized lunch, who's going to play golf? And where's the closest driving range? Where's the closest course? As the divide between rich and poor gets greater, it's going to be increasingly difficult for black kids to play golf."
The programs can also be bubbles for kids who are uncomfortable when they emerge to play on courses where they might be the only minority. It's a feeling that black adults are not immune to, especially at private clubs or high-end resorts. "If I go to Bandon Dunes with a group, we might be the only people of color there, and even if nothing gets said, you're aware of it," says Michael Lowe, program director for Youth On Course. "When you do see somebody else who looks like you, you might give a little head nod, sort of an acknowledgement that you're feeling the same thing they probably are."
For blacks who aspire to compete, getting to the highest level has been problematic. The only developmental tour geared toward African-Americans is the Advocates Professional Golf Association Tour, which expects to have seven tournaments in 2018 (offering first-place purses of $6,000 to $10,000) throughout the country, where players put on clinics for minority youth.
In older days, predominantly black caddie yards served as a wellspring from which talent could emerge. But most of these players were self-taught, and though they developed repeatable swings, their techniques left them limited. Every year, there are fewer and fewer such swings on the PGA Tour, where the increasingly common path has been one of rigorous instruction from an early age, along with exposure to competition and top courses in junior golf.
"The programs that provide kids with better education and life skills are great, but as far as real golf training, they don't prepare a kid to be a college player, much less a tour player," says instructor Jim McLean. "To have a chance to be a pro, kids need a good teacher growing up and a high-quality facility where they can practice and play. Most minority kids simply don't have those things, so golf has to offer more help. Private clubs should provide six or eight junior memberships. The best teachers should charge only nominally, if at all. I certainly think the USGA and the PGA of America have enough money to establish a center where talented underprivileged kids could develop. We're trying to grow the game, but I think this is one big thing we've left out."
Marlo Bramlett, whose son Joseph made it to the PGA Tour in 2011 after a career at Stanford (and now coming back from a back injury), sees a pattern of young African-American players hitting a wall. "At the very top of the pyramid, there is a knowledge gap, simply because so few blacks have ever made it to the top level in playing or teaching," Marlo says. "Joseph had the good fortune of working with Butch Harmon from the age of 15 to 27. The technical swing lessons were great, but it was also all the stories Butch knew about so many great players, and how they had solved a problem and gotten better."
Here Bramlett brings up Woods, whom he says was encouraging to his son before and after Joseph was at Stanford. "What person in the minority community has that knowledge and experience to pass it down?" he asks. "Of course, it's Tiger. He's the greatest player of all time, and to not have all that he could share as a resource in the minority golf community feels like an opportunity lost. I think it would be huge for the game of golf for him to take some of these young guns, sit them down and say, 'Let's get this thing figured out.' Black kids would start thinking of being great, more than just making it."
PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua says that increasing the number of certified African-American teaching professionals is a priority.
"Just as the face of the game has to look like the face of America, the face of the PGA professional has to look like the face of America," Bevacqua says. "We have to reach out to find diversity and take a more activist stance."
Teaching pros are part of The Original Tee tournament, but Haskins' primary outreach model is based on inviting former athletes and celebrities with star power to be role models. "It helps build something when a black person and especially a kid sees another black person achieving something," says Gervin, who at 65 carries a 6.1 Handicap Index. "You know, in basketball, I didn't discover the finger roll—I got it watching Wilt and Connie Hawkins and Dr. J. When Michael started playing golf and got good, that was big for black kids because Michael is such an icon. I tell them, 'Man, I wish I had started when you did. Because I love it and I know how much better I'd be.' I think I can make a small difference. A lot of younger kids don't know who I am, so I tell them, 'Google me. But in the meantime, let me talk to you.' "
The kids tend to listen at the tournament, but Haskins knows that when they go home, their feelings about playing golf might be ambivalent at best. Actor and comedian Anthony Anderson, an avid golfer who hosted the series "Golf in America" on Golf Channel, attends The Original Tee aware that his hit show, "Black-ish," in which his character wonders if he is less authentically black as he achieves a more affluent life, could easily build an episode around playing golf. "You know, being interested in golf doesn't make us black-ish," Anderson says. "Why, as black people when we think of sports, should it only be the NFL or the NBA? When we think of golf, we say, 'That's a white sport.' No, it's a sport. And if we look at it, every sport we play was a white sport at one point. And over time, it becomes less that way."
Haskins, and golf in general, is trying to accelerate that process.
"Because the effort toward exclusion was so deliberate for so long, the effort toward inclusion has to be much more deliberate than that," he says. "I pour all I know into big, visible, public displays of inclusion because I love the idea of what this game can become."
Golf needs more like him.
Dom Furore / Golf Digest