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The rebirth of golf at Florida's oldest HBCU

10 Min Read

Beyond the Ropes

The rebirth of golf at Florida's oldest HBCU

    Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour

    The uniforms were the start. Black skorts and orange, purple, red and white polos with a glow-in-the-dark logo. The young women on the Edward Waters University golf team really, really liked that one-of-a-kind logo.

    The six asked their coach, Kelly Allen, if they could leave practice early. They wanted to wear their new uniforms back to campus “because the students didn’t really know that we had a golf program,” freshman Leiahnni Smith explains. They took pictures of each other in their new gear. They shared TikTok videos, too.

    “We really made that just a day about us because we were so excited,” Smith says “… Like everything was just, we loved it. Like we were just taking it all in and I felt like the program was starting. Like, I think that was what we knew. Like, okay, it's starting.”

    And with that simple sartorial surprise, Smith and the other members of the Edward Waters women’s golf program, resurrected this season after a seven-year absence, finally felt like a team.

    The groundwork for the rebirth of the program at Florida’s oldest HBCU actually was laid in May of 2021 when officials from THE PLAYERS Championship went to EWU’s Jacksonville campus to announce a $50,000 donation from the tournament.

    The grant from the PGA TOUR’s signature event was earmarked to fund scholarships, cover operational expenses and secure a head coach, among other necessities. In addition, past PLAYERS tournament chairmen, who are members of the Red Coats, also delivered more than $10,000 in golf supplies like push carts and backpacks for the team.

    Allen wasn’t hired until December of last year, but he knows how important the support of THE PLAYERS has been -- and will be -- to his program. The tournament also invited the team to TPC Sawgrass on Thursday where many will see the TOUR’s top pros play for the first time.

    “We’re super grateful for that because without that (donation) we wouldn't be able to basically make history and be the second women’s golf team for an HBCU in the state of Florida,” Allen says.

    Turns out, the relationship with THE PLAYERS also played a role in Smith’s decision to become the Lady Tigers’ first signee. The state high school champion from Lima, Ohio had planned to stay close to home but she reversed course after a recruiting visit to Jacksonville.

    “They wanted me to check out the school, and if it's something I liked and I wanted to be a part of, then I would be a part of that history,” recalls Smith, a business administration major who hopes to work in the golf industry after graduation.

    “So, I came down and I really liked what I saw. I found out about the PGA (TOUR) partnering with the team and I just thought that that was an amazing opportunity. Not a lot of schools -- or I don't know of any of the schools that I even applied to or looked at -- had an opportunity like that.”

    Now, if only her dad Londell, who was back home in Ohio, could be on hand Thursday at THE PLAYERS, when the Lady Tigers are hosted by Grant Thornton, one of the tournament’s Proud Partners which hosts a new mixed team event later this year. He used to take her to Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament as well as an LPGA event in Toledo. But several weeks earlier she did the next best thing on FaceTime during the team’s tour of PGA TOUR headquarters.

    “I didn't know if I was allowed to be on the course,” Smith recalls. “I felt like I knew that I really shouldn't be walking around. But he was like, oh, go find 17. … I ended up walking and just to see how happy he was for me to be able to at least be there, even if he couldn't, it meant a lot.”

    Smith is one of just three players on the EWU team who played golf in high school, and the most accomplished. The first African American in northwest Ohio to win a state championship, she is also the first Woman of Color Golf-HBCU Collegiate Student Athlete Ambassador.

    “I know I have a lot of people looking at me,” the poised teenager says. “… I have a big platform. And I may not shoot 68 or I might not shoot low, but as long as I do my best and I'm consistently improving, I think that that's what I need to really focus on.”

    Her leadership will be important as Allen tries to build a program quite literally from scratch. When EWU went to Savannah (Ga.) State for an exhibition match in February, the Lady Tigers’ six-woman roster included three members of the soccer team who are walk-ons. The team didn’t have uniforms and most of the girls played with sets of clubs that their coach had pieced together and borrowed from Brentwood Golf Course, where they practise.

    The height of the learning curve has been more like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. One of Allen’s soccer players had swung a golf club before, but she had never played a hole on an actual course when she became a member of the team. Allen says that another, Arianna Aschenbrenner, didn’t even know how to hold a club when she started – but she has progressed rapidly, even parring her very first hole at Brentwood.

    “It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen on a golf course,” says Allen, who works part-time at Brentwood and Hyde Park Golf Club, in addition to coaching and running his own business, Golf by Kelly, with its signature “Hitman” logo. Yes, the one that glows in the dark.

    Allen is a Jacksonville native who grew up on Myrtle Avenue, which is about three minutes from the Edward Waters campus. He learned to play golf with his dad, Terry, who put plastic clubs in his son’s hands when he was 2, at Brentwood. He idolized Tiger Woods, like so many kids do, but Allen also liked the swagger of the pony-tailed Spaniard, Miguel Angel Jimenez.

    “I've been here for my whole life and I’m using this opportunity to give back to the community through coaching,” Allen says.

    At Brentwood, Allen also became involved with what is now First Tee-North Florida. He spent a dozen years in the program, helping beginners learn as he grew more accomplished and traveling to camps all over the country. Allen also played in what is now called the Pure Insurance Championship twice at Pebble Beach where First Tee participants are paired with PGA TOUR Champions players, an experience he calls “amazing.”

    He went on to play at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina where he won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title in 2015. When he got out of school, though, Allen realized the adult world was very different. He realized he didn’t have the passion or the work ethic to try to play professionally, so he bounced around at different jobs, working in pro shops and even writing mortgages at one point, while also launching his lifestyle brand.

    The women’s golf team at EWU basically wasn’t a team during the first semester last fall. A new athletic director was in the process of being hired, there was no golf coach and the girls basically practiced on their own, if at all. The general manager at Brentwood, Monty Duncan, who coaches Smith, knew the situation, and he told Allen there was an opening.

    Smith and her teammates had already gone home for Christmas break when they found out Allen had been hired. He immediately put together a Zoom call to introduce himself and he told them he expected a lot of them, as well as himself. He said was going to push them.

    “For me, that's something that I want because I'm used to a winning team,” Smith said.

    Smith has been playing golf since she was 7, also started in the game by her father. She soon went from wanting to drive the cart to try to outdrive her father. Her mother and two sisters are learning to play now, and her uncles have a “Brother-in-Law Cup, so golf really kind of just brings a lot of people together in my family,” Smith says.

    Smith has embraced the game for its core values of honesty and integrity, as well as the patience golf requires. She didn’t have a First Tee chapter to guide her, but she did have the Mulligans Golf Association at her local club that put together summer programs to teach kids the fundamentals, etiquette and terminology of the game. Smith, who played on the boy’s team in middle school, will be the head instructor at this summer’s MGA camp.

    Allen knows that Smith has a trusted mentor in Duncan, although he does try to add structure to her practice sessions with a variety of chipping and putting games. Her talent and work ethic set a bar for the rest, and Smith in turn has helped teammates like Aschenbrenner be patient as the soccer converts get more comfortable with the game.

    “Honestly, I am so proud of them, and I have the most respect for them because I don't know that I would be interested in playing golf at this end if I wasn't introduced to it when I was younger,” she says. “… They're a part of something big, but they're also learning something new, and it's been very fun. They're actually really good.”

    Aschenbrenner, who is a junior, has soccer workouts in the morning and hits the practice range with the rest of the team each afternoon. She says the hardest part of golf for her is the mental challenge, trying to stay positive when players like Smith hit shots she can only imagine executing. But she likes the game so much that she hopes to stick it out until graduation – and she has a red-shirt year, as well.

    “I think the best part is that like, golf is such a friendly community,” Aschenbrenner says. “Like everyone around me at the range offers help whenever they see I'm struggling or gives little pointers. It's very easy to like, just socialize and feel like you have people there who want to help you in ways other than golf, like they want to see you venture out into the future and take things that you learned on the course.”

    Allen, who just turned 30 last week and is sometimes mistaken for a student on campus, will be the first to tell you he doesn’t have it all figured out. The golfer in him is slowly giving way to the coach who needs to learn about NCAA regulations and how to recruit so he can sustain the program.

    In some ways, Allen is running a business, too. He needs to find a way to get better sets of clubs for his all golfers and transportation for the team. He’s also working on building relationships with other golf courses so he can give the girls new experiences and places to play. He’s even been called upon to handle public relations at times and appear on a DEI panel for the PGA TOUR.

    Mix in academics and real life drama with lessons for his soccer players and nine holes at Brentwood and Allen has found that golf is about 20 percent of his job. At times he feels like a big brother – “I’ve worn a lot of hats in the last three months,” Allen says. But he’s grateful to have a chance to mentor young black women, which he says is one of the “most marginalized demographic in the world.”

    And most importantly, Allen knows he’s doing what he was meant to do.

    “All of my life I've been a player. I've liked being inside the ropes,” he says. “… The last thing I thought I would be is a women's golf coach at a university. It's just not something that I ever thought about. So that has definitely been new.

    “But I continue to listen to my journey and yield and just kind of go with the flow because I know for a fact that I'm in my purpose now, and I'm happy with my choice. I wouldn't have it any other way."

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