CAN BLACK GOLFERS COME TO THE FORE?

Daunting financial and societal obstacles face minority aspirants
July 08, 1990

As the leader on the final hole of the National Minority College Golf Championship strolled up the 18th fairway at Cleveland's Highland Park Golf Course on May 22, everything appeared to be in order. Coaches and competitors from the 15 participating historically black institutions applauded politely as the soon-to-be champion, clad in the royal blue and white of Jackson State University, flashed a smile and acknowledged the gallery with a wave. The scene was predictable except for one thing. The Minority College Golf champion was Mike O'Toole, a blond, blue-eyed junior from Granite Falls, Minn.

O'Toole is the poster boy for a revolutionary campaign led by Jackson State coach Eddie Payton. His Tigers, composed of three whites, an Asian and a black, won the minority tournament by 28 shots. Payton has no qualms about recruiting white golfers to play for him. "Jerry Tarkanian coaches at a predominantly white school, but you'll see 10 brothers on the UNLV basketball team," says Payton. "We're just trying to put together the best team, regardless of color, to try to qualify for the NCAAs."

The field for the 30-team NCAA Division I tournament is made up of the top 9 to 11 finishers in teams from each of three regional tournaments. A committee issues the bids to the regionals, basing its selections largely on how teams perform in regular-season invitational tournaments. (The top two players from each regional tournament who are on nonqualifying teams also advance to the finals.) The minority schools usually aren't on the guest lists of these tournaments because they don't face enough first-rate competition to upgrade the caliber and reputation of their teams. "It's a Catch-22," says Payton. "To qualify for the NCAAs you have to play the best teams, but to play the best you have to be invited to their tournaments." Thus it may take a team like Payton's, with a majority of white players, to reach that echelon.

A recent study by the Elder Sports Management and Instructional Institute in Washington, D.C., found that the number of blacks playing recreational golf in the U.S. tripled in the 1980s, to nearly half a million. Only two of them, however, Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe, play on the PGA Tour. The last black woman to enter an LPGA event was Renee Powell, 11 years ago. The Elder Institute's chief consultant, Lee Elder, is one of only five blacks competing on the Senior tour.

Why the scarcity? In 1961, Charlie Sifford became the first black eligible to play in PGA tournaments when the PGA voted down its long-standing "Caucasians-only" rule. These days the roadblocks are less obvious, but equally frustrating.

Ten years ago in Detroit, Selina (Hollywood) Johnson's five-year-old daughter, Jamila, asked her mother if she could try golf. As she saw it, Johnson had two options: She could say no or start what would become the Hollywood Golf Institute. Johnson, a divorced mother of two and a former Detroit airport cop, who got her nickname by singing and dancing at neighborhood parties, has built the institute into a mecca for underprivileged girls and boys, ages four to 23, who are interested in golf. Johnson collects golf equipment donated by local country clubs and players as well as by golf-equipment manufacturers around the country. She lobbies for time at reduced rates at municipal and private courses and driving ranges. She also tries to get the most talented of her students college golf scholarships. "I'm doing this as an investment in our children," says Johnson. "The future of minority golf is in the youth programs."

Without exposure to a youth program, most minority kids would never try golf. Most can't hop into the family station wagon and go hit a bucket at the country club, many of which still resist black membership. Unlike football, which can be played in a sandlot with a hand-me-down pigskin or on the high school junior varsity team, golf requires expensive lessons and equipment and is rarely offered by inner-city high schools.

Should a kid be one of the few who choose golf over the lures of the gridiron, the hard court, the diamond or the street, he or she would do well to attract the attention of Bill Dickey. As president of the National Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association, Dickey scours the country in search of talented minority golfers. He then arranges matches between golfers and colleges with scholarships to offer. In addition, Dickey's association has itself given out $70,000 in scholarships during its six years in business.

Three years ago Dickey met Chris Brown of Minneapolis at a junior tournament in Louisville. Brown was not sure where he would go to college, so Dickey introduced him to Larry Coleman, the coach at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., who signed him on the spot. Brown, who will be a senior in the fall, began playing golf at age nine. Despite his 6'6" frame, he was not diverted by roundball. "One of my pet peeves is that I'm stereotyped because I'm 6'6" and black," says Brown. "People are always saying I should be playing basketball, and why am I wasting my time with golf."

Rod Lathern must wonder occasionally whether he isn't, in fact, wasting his time. If Lathern, 24, a year out of one of the best black collegiate golf programs in the country—South Carolina State's—had a dime for every letter he has written to potential sponsors asking for the money to enable him to attend the PGA Tour's qualifying school, he would be there by now. Entry into the school, a three-stage tournament that costs about $2,750, affords a participant the chance to be one of 3,000 to 4,000 golfers vying for 50 Tour cards.

To gain experience, Lathern has been playing on the Florida minitour. At a tournament in Orlando in May, he finished a respectable 11th. He paid a $250 entry fee and earned $390. Lathern would have made a few more dollars had he not been tied with a black former PGA touring pro, Adrian Stills.

Four years ago, Stills, now 32, could not have envisioned struggling for survival on the Florida minitour. On July 11, 1986, he stood on the first tee of the Kings-mill Golf Club in Williamsburg, Va., leading the Anheuser-Busch Classic after one round. He would shoot 71 and 73 in the middle rounds and trail by only four shots entering the final day. "I started thinking about how I could win the thing and about my new BMW, and I shot 77 in the final round," says Stills. "My check went from $90,000 to $1,400."

A year later, Stills became a victim of the ever-improving talent pool in pro golf; he lost his PGA Tour card. He concedes that he had all the breaks. He had a sponsor. He, like Lathern, had played for South Carolina State. And his path had been blazed by pioneers like Sifford and Elder. It was Elder who broke the color barrier at the Masters in 1975.

Elder qualified for Augusta by winning the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Fla. His victory affected the life of a 14-year-old kid in the gallery. "I liked football and basketball better, but I played golf to get out of mowing the lawn, and to be with my dad," says Stills. "Then I saw Lee Elder win that tournament. He won at 4:30 in the afternoon, and by 5:00 I was out on the driving range."

Peete knows all about the importance of role models. "Black golfers are an endangered species on the PGA Tour," he says. "In three to five years we will probably be extinct."

Peete was the third-leading money winner on the PGA Tour in 1985, but he is nearly 47 now, and Thorpe is 41. With an eye toward the future, Peete recently organized the Calvin Peete National Minority Golf Foundation to help introduce inner-city children to golf. "But the foundation is designed to help the situation in 10 years or so," he says. "Young black golfers need to have more role models on the Tour right now."

So who will be the next black trailblazer on the Tour? If they can find sponsors, Stills and Lathern will attend the Tour school in the fall, though they'll face the usual long odds against getting their cards. Brown is still raw and may lack the discipline needed to reach the Tour. The most likely candidate is 14-year-old Eldrick (Tiger) Woods of Cypress, Calif. Tiger is a + 2 handicapper who has already won four junior world championships-more than Mark O'Meara or Craig Stadler did as kids. Last year Tiger played in a pro-am with 20 PGA pros and beat eight of them. He starts high school in the fall and plans to go to college, so he probably won't be a regular on the Tour until the year 2000. In the meantime, role models may have to come from the head of the dining room table.

"We as black adults need to get off our butts," says Payton. "Instead of playing $5 Nassaus on weekends, we need to work with six-and seven-year-old kids, introducing them to the game. If we don't get up off it in a hurry, we're going to lose an entire generation of black golfers."

PHOTOTONY TOMSICO'Toole led Payton's Tigers to the national minority crown. PHOTOTONY TOMSICElder is one of only five blacks who compete on the Senior tour. PHOTOTONY TOMSICBrown, who placed third, was the leader among the tournament's black golfers.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)