‘People have to learn to grow’Golf leaders wrestle with how to speed up diversity in a time of unrest
June 17, 2020
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
A thoughtful conversation with Commissioner Monahan and Varner III
When Adrian Stills, 63, first played Osceola Golf Course in Pensacola, Florida, in the mid-60s, he says, “They had just integrated it like eight years before I started playing golf there.”
And that was good.
When he reached the PGA TOUR in 1986, he was among a small cadre of African Americans that included 1985 PLAYERS Championship winner Calvin Peete, Jim Dent, Jim Thorpe, Tom Woodard and Charles Owens and Lee Elder on PGA TOUR Champions, and others.
That, too, was good.
Today, there are four African-American players on TOUR: Harold Varner III, Joseph Bramlett, Cameron Champ and, of course, Tiger Woods. For a few hours last Saturday, Varner and Bramlett led tournaments on the PGA TOUR and the Korn Ferry Tour, in Texas and Florida, respectively.
Varner finished T19, Bramlett T2, but that was almost beside the point. In a game where diversity has come in fits and starts, leaders are looking inward and having hard conversations while the wider world does the same, everyone wrestling with terms like white privilege, unconscious bias and structural racism, not to mention the death of George Floyd and others.
“From my perspective there has been some progress,” says Stills, who is now is the General Manager and teaching pro at Osceola. “The unfortunate part of it all is it’s just been so slow.”
The Charles R. Drew Charter School in Southeast Atlanta last year became the first all-black high school team and first public school in the city to win the Georgia (public-school) state boys’ golf championship. It was a gratifying moment for the school, but also the TOUR and the TOUR Championship, which have played a big role in the revitalization of the East Lake Community.
Support from the TOUR Championship reached $3.5 million last year – a tournament record – which went to the East Lake Foundation, Grove Park Foundation, Purpose Built Schools Atlanta and the First Tee of Metro Atlanta. The First Tee is well established nationally, and other programs to introduce minorities to the game have sprung up in New York, Orlando and beyond.
Still, there’s much more work to do.
“We need to grow out of this,” said PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan, who sat for a videotaped conversation with Varner in the wake of the Floyd tragedy. “We need to diversify those that have access to our sport and make sure we’re making a difference there.”
Says Stills’ friend Ken Bentley, CEO of the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour (APGA), which aims to promote diversity in golf and which the PGA TOUR has supported since 2012, “When Adrian was on TOUR there were like 11 African Americans out there.”Joseph Bramlett contended in the Korn Ferry Tour's first event since the break. (Ben Jared/Getty Images)
To begin to tackle that problem, he and Stills co-founded the APGA in 2010. Stills is Director of Player Development, Bentley the CEO. The APGA made history by playing at Torrey Pines North while the Farmers Insurance Open used the South in January, but went on hiatus due to the pandemic. The circuit will start up again at TPC Sugarloaf in Atlanta next Monday.
With help from the TOUR, which provides access to TPC courses and the PGA TOUR Performance Center at TPC Sawgrass, the APGA will increase its number of tournaments to 10 by 2022. It is expected to reach 2,000 young people a year, and develop a database of qualified minority candidates upon which golf organizations and manufactures will be able to draw.
Alumni like Varner, Bramlett and Tony Finau are a beacon of hope. And last week Farmers Insurance announced it is sponsoring two APGA members, Willie Mack III from Flint, Michigan, and Kamaiu Johnson of Tallahassee, Florida. (Both now live in Orlando.)
A few years ago Mack, a former winner of the Michigan Amateur, got through the PGA TOUR Latinoamerica qualifying school, but soon lost momentum for reasons unrelated to golf.
“He didn’t have the money to go and play in the tournaments,” Bentley says. “Farmers has really stepped up, and the sponsorship will help with that. In tennis, if you show promise, they send you to a USTA training center. They take cost out of the equation. Golf has to use that model.
“I really believe in the next five years you’re going to see a completely different golf landscape,” he adds. “I think the unrest we see now will help speed that up.”
Some things are clearly working. The TOUR Championship’s connection to the East Lake Foundation and Drew Charter is a great example of how golf and the TOUR can help. Nearly all of the students in Drew’s first three senior classes graduated and were accepted to college. Test scores have surged while violent crime has declined 99% since 1995. In the vision of Tom Cousins and boosted by the TOUR Championship’s presence and charitable commitment, East Lake has become a community where every child and family has a chance to succeed.
Stills hopes we’re moving beyond the era when he was mysteriously denied entry into an elite junior tournament that still exists. Later, his almost entirely black golf team at South Carolina State was denied entry at certain hotels. Still, the struggle continues.
“I’ve stopped using the word change,” Stills says, “but I’m emphasizing the word grow. People have to learn to grow. You may not change, but you should never stop growing. You should be able to process and come to different conclusions. And even if you don’t, you should at least have some opportunity to interact with people you don’t know. Golf is a good catalyst for that.
“Not everybody has malice in their hearts,” he adds.
Varner and Bramlett continue to share their thoughts on current events.
“I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me,” says Bramlett, who adds that he is still trying to figure out how to best use his platform to make change. He will play in the Korn Ferry Tour’s King & Bear Classic this week, while Varner is competing in the RBC Heritage.
“Golf has to change, but I’m optimistic,” Bentley says. “You see Cameron Champ doing a clinic in Compton during the Genesis Invitational, with no media, on a par-3 course there. Joseph came and talked to our (APGA) guys in San Diego at the Farmers Insurance Open.”
Interviewed at the Charles Schwab last week, Brooks Koepka said, “There needs to be change, and I want to be part of the solution.” Other stars like Jon Rahm have also stepped up, denouncing racism in all forms, as has Monahan. The TOUR reserved the 8:46 tee times to honor the memory of Floyd last week, and is developing a long-term, focused commitment to address racial justice issues, the details of which will be shared in the weeks to come.
“There’s a generation of guys coming up who really want to change things,” Bentley says. “It’s not just a black problem, it’s an American problem, and Americans are finding creative ways to solve it.”