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Plug in the Pipeline

Plug in the Pipeline

Young minority golfers often can’t afford to enter the big-name tournaments, but efforts are underwayto produce the sport’s next superstar.

By Frank J. Matthews

Going from a golf fan to a serious player to a professional is no simple feat. Those who have made the journey recognize how slim the odds truly are. And although most PGA and LPGA golfers can’t agree on how best to swing a club or which grip is the most reliable, it’s almost universally accepted that college experience is critical to professional golf success.

For thousands of junior golfers in the United States, the professional dream meets with harsh reality when they realize that there are only 800 to 900 combined scholarships available for men’s and women’s Division I golf. For most, continuing their golf dreams means accepting offers from Division II- and III-level schools.

“Ninety percent of freshmen who go to college think that one day they will be good enough to play on TV,” says Eddie Payton, head coach of men’s and women’s golf at Jackson State University in Mississippi. “After about two years, reality sets in and … [many] realize that their best hope is to become real good college players, get a marketable degree and get a job within the golf industry so they can stay close to the game that they love.”

The golf bug is biting players at a younger age, and is becoming more popular as golfers like Tiger Woods become mainstream sports superstars, says Dean Frischknecht, a former collegiate player at Oregon State University and current publisher of the PING American College Golf Guide.

“Kids are playing earlier and they are playing more these days,” he says. “If you have athletic ability, you can learn golf as a teenager and be a very good player. But most kids are being exposed to golf at a younger age. There are more opportunities. Junior golf is more visible, and it’s attracting good athletes.”

The Path to the Pros
It is an adage that holds true in almost any context — practice makes perfect. In golf, like in many other sports, experience is a central factor in success as well. Children who take up golf early have a distinct advantage when they hit high school and begin competing for the attention of college coaches.

“The ones that get recruited are the ones that post some good numbers at big tournaments. If you post good numbers in national tournaments, you are going to get recruited by more coaches. You are going to be recruited by the coaches at the big-time schools,” Frischknecht says.

The national junior tournaments are a vital crucible for young golfers. Those tournaments are critical markers on their paths from high school to Division I universities, and from there to the professional ranks. But most experts agree that finding the means to participate in highly prestigious tournaments like American Junior Golf Association-sponsored events is more difficult for minorities. Unable to access the tournaments, many young minority golfers find the pipeline to the pros blocked off at its source.

One program designed to help with this problem is the First Tee Program. Founded by the World Golf Foundation in 1997, the program was designed specifically to bring golf to economically disadvantaged youth. The WGF worked to identify courses that the children could physically get to and afford, and places that would be welcoming environments for the young players. Within three years, it had developed more than 100 golf learning facilities across America.

“If you want to shoot basketballs, all you need are a hoop and a ball.

But with golf, you have to have not only the room, but you have to have the time,” Frischknecht says. “I think that’s what the First Tee Program does, it makes those facilities available.

Payton, who has led Jackson State to 18 consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference men’s golf championships and eight consecutive women’s championships, says the effectiveness of the First Tee Program is yet to be determined.

“We haven’t had a chance to see kids that are six or seven years old go through the program and integrate into colleges to see if it was successful or not. To me, until we get a handle on it and start establishing some teaching academies specifically designed for the needs of the inner-city kids, where you can get them in at an early age and monitor them and make sure that they get the instruction they need to be competitive, there will always be a marked absence in the number of minority players to choose from each year,” Payton says.

The Pied Piper of Minority Junior Golf

One person who echoes that sentiment is Bill Dickey, who has been dedicated to creating long-term programs to unclog the college golf pipeline. Dickey’s efforts have earned him recognition by the PGA for helping Black and other minority youth gain access to the sport.

Dickey founded the National Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association, which since 1984 has awarded close to $2 million to college-bound golfers. The scholarship program is funded primarily through the annual East-West Golf Tournament, which brings together amateur minority golfers from across the country.

“I wanted to concentrate on developing programs that would introduce young Black kids and minority kids to the game of golf,” Dickey says.
In the 1980s, he used funds from the association to send high school kids to play in the National Minority College Golf Championship in Cleveland.

“The idea was to not only expose them but also to let some of the Black college coaches see that there were Black kids across America with quality golf skills,” Dickey says. “Because at that time, the Black colleges that did have golf teams had no idea of where any kids were to even approach about being on the team.”

Dickey quickly realized that raising funds and support for the association would require a strategic approach.

“As we started to try to solicit funds from various companies, we found out that corporate America in particular wasn’t interested in putting a golf club in a Black kid’s hand,” he says. “So we made them see that this is going to help kids get an education through scholarships and that we were providing golf coaches with lists of minority kids for potential scholarships. You can get more money if you’re educating kids, people are more interested in that than just a kid playing golf.”

Besides the East-West Golf Tournament, one of the biggest financial contributors for the associations has been the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns and operates the Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut. Rick Butler, vice chairman of the tribal nation, believes in using golf as a vehicle to obtain educational scholarships.
“The tribe believes in assisting not just Native Americans, but minorities in general as far as education goes,” says Butler. “The only thing you can earn in life and not have taken away is your education.” Over the past nine years, the tribe has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in college scholarships to minorities.

The International Factor
The recent influx of international players has made the road even more difficult for minority golfers hoping to make it big. Large numbers of well-coached Asian and European players are streaming to the United States, often pulling in scholarships from the country’s top golf programs. Similar to the men’s college basketball landscape, many of the top foreign players only stay in college for a year or two before challenging the pro circuit.

Says Payton, “Foreign countries do a better job of identifying which kids have special skills at an early age, whether it be golf, basketball or whatever, and then adding that sport to their curriculum. So it becomes reading, writing, arithmetic and golf. Those kids come over here and are more technically sound and have more experience at a higher level than our kids do at the same age.

“We have seen a few prodigies, and you don’t get enough prodigies to be alarmed about the one or two who decide to skip college,” Payton says. “There is not as much emphasis put on college for the Europeans. We put a lot more emphasis on having an education and being able to be multi-dimensional as opposed to putting all the eggs in one basket.”

While some young international golfers leave college early, others are very willing to use all of their college eligibility, adding an international aspect to the college recruiting game. Many coaches choose to round out their teams with talented foreign players. Last May, historically Black Tennessee State University won the National Minority Golf Championship in Port St. Lucie, Fla. None of their players were Black and only one was from the United States. Two were Australian, one was from the United Kingdom and one was from Sweden.

March will mark the 10-year anniversary of Tiger Woods’ professional golf debut, an event many thought would spark an increase in minority interest and participation in golf. Woods has become the PGA Tour’s only true superstar. He boasts a Q Score of 90, meaning he is recognized and liked by 90 percent of the country’s population across a range of demographics. No other PGA golfer has a Q Score over 40.

While there has been an increase overall in the numbers of Blacks and other minorities participating in golf, it appears that it takes more than the dominance of Woods to have a significant impact on the complexion of the game.

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