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HBCUs shine at Charlie Sifford Centennial Cup at Quail Hollow

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Beyond The Ropes

The exhibition featured six top HBCU programs and was conceived by Presidents Cup organizers

    Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour

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    CHARLOTTE – Quail Hollow Club fell silent as Troy Stribling stood over his 3-foot putt on the 15th green on Monday.

    Well, except for the construction workers hammering nails into the plywood of the floor of a hospitality area behind the gleaming white clubhouse. Not that a little noise mattered to Stribling, a senior at Florida A&M. He was just focused on the birdie putt that would give him a 4-and-3 victory over Texas Southern’s Owen Walsh – and as it turned out, clinch at least a tie for the Charlie Sifford Centennial Cup.

    “This was something special,” Stribling says. “This is probably the best golf tournament I've ever been a part of … especially, to share with this group of guys for my last year.”

    The exhibition, which featured six of the top Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) programs in the country, was conceived by the organizers of The Presidents Cup, which will take center stage at Quail Hollow in three weeks. Hence, the last-minute preparations for the biennial team competition to be held Sept. 22-25.

    The Charlie Sifford Centennial Cup was part of a year-long celebration of what would have been the World Golf Hall of Famer’s 100th birthday on June 2. The Charlotte native, who was the first African American to earn his PGA TOUR card, died in 2015.

    “I knew he was a trailblazer, and I didn't know every obstacle he went through to get to where he was,” Stribling says. “He went through a lot of hardships. … And he's not really talked about like the Muhammad Alis or Malcolm X or MLK, and he should be.

    “So, he went through a lot to help us get to where we are and we're just here to honor him.”

    The six schools were separated into two teams for Monday’s competition – FAMU, Alabama State and Livingstone College represented Charles Sifford Jr. while Howard, Texas Southern and the host Johnson C. Smith played for James Black, another Charlotte native and a mainstay of the United Golf Association during the days of segregation.

    The final score was 12-6, in favor of the team captained by Sifford Jr. But the chance to play a major championship-caliber course – Quail Hollow has hosted the 2017 PGA Championship, 18 Wells Fargo Championships and 11 Kemper Opens on TOUR – made it a win-win for the student-athletes, many of whom aspire to play professionally.

    “It's just preparing for my future,” says Howard’s Greg Odom Jr., who won the MEAC title and played in the Wells Fargo Championship on a sponsor’s exemption earlier this year.

    “And for me – if you see it, you can be it. So, I'm just here just trying to play great golf and continue my legacy.”

    The massive grandstands and hospitality venue may have been empty on Monday but Stribling, who like Odom plans to turn pro after graduation, was able to get a sense of what the excitement might be like in late September. J.C. Smith coach William Watkins says the “small city” being built for 40,000 can make the game feel intimidating.

    “Even though there's no spectators in the stands, I feel a little nervous,” he says. “I'm like, wow, just imagine all the eyeballs on you.”

    The teams played the same reconfigured routing that will be used in the Presidents Cup. Quail Hollow's famous Green Mile, holes 16-18, will be played as holes 13-15 for the Presidents Cup in order to make sure those holes factor into the matches. In fact, while Monday’s morning Four-ball matches were taking place, several members of the International Team and Captain Trevor Immelman made a stealth reconnaissance appearance at the course.

    “I haven't really played a course like this with this kind of atmosphere,” Stribling says. “Having the Presidents Cup be here in a couple weeks to (watch) on TV and say, ‘I played those holes’ is something special. I can't wait to tell my friends and my family about it.”

    Sifford Jr., who hit the competition’s opening tee shot, felt his father would have approved.

    “He would be super happy about it,” Sifford Jr. says. “There are two things that he always wanted. He just wanted to be able to play the game of golf and have the kids of all ages to be able to have a chance, an equal chance, to play the game, be exposed to it and have an opportunity to play it because he really, he fell in love with the game when he was 10 years old.

    “So, he would've been jumping off the wall to see something like this.”

    The connections – some made and others renewed -- at Quail Hollow were many.

    The grandfather of Andre Springs, who coaches the NCAA Division II-leading Livingstone College team, played Little League baseball with the late Sifford, and Springs has known Sifford’s son for decades. Robert Clark, the assistant coach at Alabama State, first met the pioneering golfer when he came to support a junior clinic Clark was holding in Portland, Oregon.

    “I started talking to (Clark) about Charlie's acceptance speech when Charlie received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” says Adam Sperling, the executive director of the Presidents Cup. “And he said, oh, you don't have to tell me. I was in the third row.

    One of those stories involves the Livingstone team, which has eight players from Uganda on its roster. The first to enroll was Titus Okwong, the oldest of 10 children who learned the game as a caddie. He was playing on his country’s national team and decided he wanted to come to the United States to play in college. He contacted more than 100 schools but couldn’t get enough scholarship aid – until he called Springs, that is.

    “I get this call out of the blue,” Springs recalls. “‘Hello coach. This is Titus calling you from Uganda, Africa. I would like to come to America to play for the Blue Bears.’”

    Figuring it was a prank call, Springs hung up. A few minutes later – it was 2 a.m. in Uganda – Okwong called back. Please don’t hang up the phone again, he told Springs. I want to be a champion and the Blue Bears are winning championships.

    Although he had no scholarship money, Springs was intrigued enough to ask whether Okwong could really play. The coach suggested he call back in a month, never really expecting to hear from him. But Okwong called. Springs told him to send his information to the admissions office and talked to the university president. They decided to give Okwong a chance.

    All Springs could offer was a partial academic scholarship. Okwong would need to raise $5,000 – which was nearly 2 million Ugandan shillings. He says he locked himself in his room for two days trying to figure out what to do. A friend suggested a fund-raising golf tournament, which netted nearly $3,000, and he raised more by putting fliers with his information at other courses. Finally, some of the people at his club who had been skeptical were willing to contribute, too.

    “They said, ‘Wow, this guy is serious,’” Okwong recalls. “Everybody started coming in. Everybody wants to be on a winning team.”

    Okwong came to Salisbury, North Carolina, in 2016. He played golf for the Blue Bears, captaining the team one year, and earned a degree in business administration with a 3.8 GPA. He is now Springs’ assistant coach and his quest serves as a blueprint for other Ugandans, including one of his brothers, who have played at schools like Catawba College and Howard, as well as Livingstone.

    “We all originally grew up together as caddies,” Okwong says. “And one thing we told ourselves is if one of us ever made it, we should never forget the others.”

    And he didn’t.

    “It’s a movie,” Springs says, shaking his head and smiling. “… We have eight on the team from Uganda right now. Now those kids would never have gotten the opportunity had not been for that phone call.”

    Springs says the Charlie Sifford Centennial Cup gives programs like his – which is ranked No. 1 nationally in NCAA Division II – much needed exposure. With that, comes growth.

    “It means a lot to our golf team,’ Springs says. “They are so excited about being here and being around the other players from other schools and meeting other players because of the relationships involved through this tournament. So, it's been great.”

    The two-day event kicked off with practice rounds on Sunday. At the welcome reception that night, the Presidents Cup announced $25,000 donations to the golf programs at the six participating teams, as well as the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Scholarship, which helps defray expenses for HBCU students or minorities enrolled in golf management programs.

    Watkins says the donation exceeds his yearly operating budget. He sees the money helping with recruiting and travel expenses. It will also complete an endowed scholarship he started that was on a five-year plan and now can be realized well ahead of schedule.

    “So, I’m excited about that,” Watkins says. “That’s going to be something the team can take advantage of after I’m long gone and hopefully I can continue to get support to build on that structure.”

    The Charlie Sifford Centennial Cup was conceived as part of the PGA TOUR’s on-going mission to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. The Presidents Cup will also host a leadership summit during the week of the event featuring representatives from Bridgestone, Citi, Cognizant and Nucor, as well as presidents of HBCUs and other sports executives.

    Sperling says he’s extremely pleased with how the Centennial Cup unfolded.

    “I think our report card is measured in the looks on the faces of these 24 student-athletes, their coaches, their administrators, their families, from their arrival Saturday evening through yesterday's welcome reception and practice rounds and in today's competition,” he says.

    “… I'm not sure any of us knew how we would do it. We just knew it was something we needed to do. And we got a lot of the right people in the right positions to lead various areas and I couldn't be happier with how it's come out.”