Paving the way
Mack Champ was once forbidden to play golf due to his skin color, but his grandson Cameron is now the newest sensation on TOUR
February 12, 2019
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Through the wonders of modern technology, three generations were joined on the Country Club of Jackson’s 18th green.
Father and son embraced, while the man who started it all, the one who once wasn’t allowed to play the game that has made his grandson a millionaire, was present through the screen of a cell phone.
“We did it for you, Grandpa,” said Jeff Champ, the proud father of a new PGA TOUR champion. “We did it for you.”
“Grandpa” is Mack Champ, who caddied as a kid in Texas but wasn’t allowed to swing his own clubs. He enlisted in the Air Force and eventually moved to California to escape racial prejudice. He settled in Sacramento, not far from a modest par-3 course that would become the unlikely training ground for one of the PGA TOUR’s rising stars.
Mack’s grandson, Cameron Champ, won the Sanderson Farms Championship last October in just the second tournament of his rookie season. The 23-year-old added two more top-10s in the fall to cement his status as golf’s new “it” kid. His accomplishments were surpassing his prodigious driving distance. He is 11th in this season’s FedExCup standings.
Cameron Champ claims first PGA TOUR win at Sanderson Farms
When he tees it up in this week’s Genesis Open, it will be the second time he has competed at Riviera. Although this is his rookie season, he played one of the TOUR’s historic venues last year after receiving an exemption that honored his heritage.
The Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption has been awarded annually since 2009 to a golfer from a minority background. Champ was its 2018 recipient. He missed the cut, but it was a stepping stone to success.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Sifford’s win at what was then known as the Los Angeles Open. Sifford was the first African-American to play on the PGA TOUR. His trailblazing career made it possible for a player such as Cameron Champ to follow in his footsteps. The significance is not lost on the Champ family.
“For Cameron to receive that exemption in his name, in his honor, and knowing that Cameron's grandfather wasn't allowed to play this game back in his days, it was very special to the family,” Jeff Champ said.
Success has come quickly for his son, but that doesn’t mean the road was easy. Cameron Champ’s path to the PGA TOUR started some seven decades earlier, when Mack Champ became a caddie to support his family.
Mack grew up in Columbus, Texas, about 75 miles west of Houston. He and his brothers caddied at the nine-hole course in Columbus, earning 45 cents a loop. He couldn’t play the game, though.
“The golf courses, the hamburger stands, the restaurants, they didn’t allow blacks,” Mack recently told Golf.com.
That had to wait until the Air Force took him overseas, to Europe, in the early 1960s. He could hit all the balls he wanted on the base’s driving range. He shot 132 in his first round but was determined to improve. He bought “Sam Snead’s Natural Golf” instructional book to learn more about the swing.
When Mack returned to Texas in the mid-1960s, he faced the same racial segregation that had been there when he left. Mack was married to a white woman. Their interracial marriage was recognized on the Air Force base, but he was subject to arrest the second he walked off the base.
The Champs moved to California, in part because they thought the progressive state would be more accepting of their marriage. Mack still lives in the same house that he moved into in 1969.
Mack’s golf game continued to progress to the point that he could shoot in the 70s. Jeff played almost everything but golf, though.
He played basketball, football and baseball in high school. His baseball career continued at a local community college before heading to San Diego State. He was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and played in the New York Yankees’ minor-league system, as well. He played catcher, the same position that Tiger Woods’ father, Earl, played in college at Kansas State.
After Jeff’s baseball career ended, he got into the screen-printing business. Mack would watch his grandson while Jeff was at work. Cameron’s golf career began with a set of plastic Snoopy clubs.
“I just loved going to grandpa's house and hitting balls with him over the house,” Cameron said.
Just like in Texas, there was a nine-hole course near Mack Champ’s home. He could play this one, though, and he brought his grandson with him.
The Foothill Golf Course is a par-3 course that measures a little over 1,100 yards. There are no bunkers and the greens are flat circles. Its straightforward layout makes it popular with kids and seniors.
Champ currently ranks as the TOUR’s longest hitter, but when he first started playing at Foothill, he had to lay up on the course’s longest holes, which measured approximately 150 yards.
“I found out this kid had some natural ability at 2. You saw it early,” Jeff said. “By age 5, he started playing his first tournaments. And media started coming out and did a story on him at 5 years old. I’m like, ‘This kid has some serious talent.’”
While Mack taught Cameron the game, Jeff’s athletic background helped him raise an athlete.
“When he was 4 years old, I started working on hand-eye coordination with him,” Jeff said. “I would sit 4 feet out from him with a catcher’s mask on, and I would toss him a little golf Wiffle ball and he’d try to hit them with a Wiffle ball bat. … I didn’t care if he made contact, I was just working on hand-eye coordination and quickness, quickness, quickness. And as he got comfortable with it, I would go a little quicker.”
Jeff inspired Cameron to practice by telling him that planes landing at a nearby airport were Tiger Woods returning to California from a tournament. The opportunity to catch a glimpse of Woods extended young Cameron’s practice sessions. He eventually realized Woods wasn’t on any of those planes, but his love of the game continued.
The racial barriers that kept Mack Champ from playing the game may have been torn down, but the game still presents financial hurdles, especially when trying to raise an elite junior golfer.
The Champs had considered moving to the suburbs but decided to stay in the Foothill Farms neighborhood of Sacramento so that they could afford Cameron’s golf career.
“Mortgage payments were golf for a year,” Jeff said. “And then, through golf, and that’s one thing I love about golf, we met so many great people, so many friends through the game of golf, that we ended up having people help support Cameron’s travel.”
One of Jeff’s friends from Sacramento helped Cameron’s career take off. John Wood went on to become a longtime caddie for Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar. When Wood heard about his friend’s son with the big drives and big potential, he was able to secure Cameron an invitation into an AJGA event hosted by Mahan. Cameron finished second to establish himself on the national stage.
“If I didn't get that (invitation), who knows what would have happened because for my family there was no way for us to be able to travel and play so many of those events to get rankings up,” Cameron said.
A tournament created for minority golfers also helped elevate Champ’s status. Cameron won the Bill Dickey Invitational in 2012, which earned him a spot in that year’s Junior PGA Championship. He finished second there to make the United States’ Junior Ryder Cup team.
His success led to a scholarship to Texas A&M, where things came full circle. The campus is located in College Station, Texas, the same town where Mack Champ was once denied service in a restaurant because of the color of his skin. Mack was making the 600-mile journey home from Amarillo, Texas, to tell his family that he was being deployed overseas by the Air Force.
His family’s history makes Cameron eager to give back. He’s only been on TOUR a matter of months, but he already has plans for the Cameron Champ Foundation and how it will use the Foothill Golf Course to help kids in Sacramento. He envisions after-school programs and educational programs, as well as an opportunity for kids to be introduced to the game that changed his life. He earned $300,000 toward his dream by making the most birdies during the PGA TOUR’s fall season and winning the Birdies Fore Love competition.
“Charity and giving back has always been a thing of mine and my family personally,” Cameron said. “We didn't come from much, but we always gave back as much as possible.”