'Just go for it'
The first class of the APGA Collegiate Ranking is learning on the job
June 24, 2021
By Andrew Lawrence, PGATOUR.COM
Mulbe Dillard IV had a lot on his mind on the six-hour car ride from his home in Jacksonville, Florida, to Raleigh, North Carolina and the Korn Ferry Tour’s REX Hospital Open earlier this month.
A newly minted graduate of HBCU Florida A&M, Dillard, 22, was about to make his first start as a professional, having earned a place in the field by virtue of his spot atop the first APGA Collegiate Ranking. Wilson had shipped bags, umbrellas, and caps to the course ahead of time, and he planned to reach town with plenty of daylight to practice.
Alas, when he arrived that Sunday afternoon, the back nine of the Hale Irwin-designed par-71 course had been closed. He walked the front and marveled at the long, tumbling fairways and fast undulating greens. He played nine holes Monday, and finally saw the back nine Tuesday. The Wednesday pro-am devolved from a scouting mission to a rubbernecking exercise as Dillard was paired with football legends Torry and Terrence Holt.
“I was pretty nervous,” Dillard recalls. “I’ve never really been in this position.”
The APGA Collegiate Ranking – which takes the five best seniors from Division I, II or II programs and exempts them into APGA summer events and from Korn Ferry Tour pre-qualifying – is part of the PGA TOUR’s 10-year, $100 million commitment to racial justice.
The idea is to extend a shorter, smoother onramp for top Black collegiate golfers yearning to follow in the footsteps of Harold Varner III, Cameron Champ, Joseph Bramlett and others.
“My best players are looking at their ranking regularly,” says Howard men’s golf coach Sam Puryear. “I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had with them about it. They want to be on that list because they want those shots.”
Dillard is one of four FAMU players in the APGA Tour College Ranking, a short list that comes with major bragging rights for HBCU golf coaches like the Rattlers’ Mike Rice. His all-senior team became the first in the history of the program to earn an NCAA tournament berth after carding a 19-stroke triumph in the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference championship.
This, despite golf not exactly ranking high on the list of student concerns at FAMU – not even in the golf class that Rice teaches in addition to coaching the team.
“My introduction to them is, ‘I’m also the head coach of the golf team,’” he says. “And most of them are like, ‘We didn’t even know we had a golf team.’”
Rice’s annual budget would barely cover recruiting expenses at a traditional Division 1 golf powerhouse. Florida State, for example, recruits with scholarships, gets sponsored equipment and apparel, and trains on its own course that can be groomed to replicate tournament conditions. Meanwhile, its Tallahassee neighbor FAMU makes do on a public course, with players carrying heavy course loads and working jobs on the side to keep up with expenses.
And while a recent deal with TaylorMade and a new practice range will help the Rattlers, so much more is needed to prepare them for pro careers. Tim O’Neal, an HBCU grad and touring pro, says it’s a giant leap from HBCU golf to the professional game.
“Like going from high school baseball to triple-A,” he says. “There are some players who have the potential. But if you go to an HBCU, you’re not gonna be playing at a level to go up against a top-five school. Not to say it can’t happen, but it’s gonna be a while you see a guy from an HBCU come out and just dominate.”
It’s been 36 years since South Carolina State’s Adrian Stills graduated from Q School; he’s the last Black player from a black college to reach the PGA TOUR. He didn’t have the benefit of the APGA Tour, which seeks to provide playing opportunities for promising minority golfers, and for which he serves as Director of Player Development.
Nor did Stills have help from the APGA Collegiate Ranking, which can at least provide players with exemptions and cover travel costs associated with APGA Tour events.
In theory that makes HBCU products more competitive with counterparts from predominantly white institutions. In reality, though, those kids get their own boost from PGA Tour University; upperclassmen in the top five of that ranking receive a yearlong Korn Ferry Tour exemption, while the next 10 finishers win free passes into the PGA TOUR’s three international tours.
Some coaches and others believe HBCUs need to be given the chance to play against bigger Division I powerhouses more than once a year at the conference tournament. Yet another challenge for HBCU golf programs is that many are under the constant threat of being shuttered.
That the Rattlers even have a course at their disposal, in this economy, is a luxury.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Rice says. “Southwood is a good course, and I love it. But at a public course, greens are running an 8, 10 [on the Stimpmeter] max. And then you go and play in a bigger event where the greens are running 12 to 14. That’s a huge adjustment.”
The system is still in the early stages, and far from perfect. O’Neal believes the APGA Tour Collegiate Ranking formula will require some tweaking to brace players to jump up. Some would like to see it opened to all minorities, not just seniors.
At the REX Hospital Open, Dillard exulted after bombing his opening tee shot 310 yards down the fairway. But his round quickly unraveled from there. Thrown by a rainstorm that slowed the greens and stretched first-round play over two days, Dillard shot a 79.
It was a rough start for a player who had two top-10s in three APGA starts as an amateur.
“It was frustrating,” he says. “That was probably the nerves and, you know, just being a little uncomfortable.”
Urging him on were coach Rice; his parents, who flew in from Chicago; and former FAMU teammate and friend Logan Bryant, whom Dillard hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic. But what ultimately cut through was advice from three-time PGA TOUR winner Johnson Wagner, with whom he’d played a practice round after a chance meeting on the back nine.
“He told me this five times, but it didn’t really click until the fourth time,” Dillard says. “I told him how I was sponsor exempt, kind of how I got there, and he was just like, ‘Go for it.’
“I understand what that means,” Dillard continues, “but what does it really mean?”
That’s when Charles Raulerson, Dillard’s swing coach and caddie, broke it all down.
“You don’t have anything to lose,” he said. “You’re not out here trying to make a list or fighting for your next meal or anything. You’re here to learn and get better. So don’t be scared. Don’t leave anything on the table.”
Once Dillard committed to “getting comfortable with everything that made me uncomfortable,” he says, his prospects turned around. Playing with more self-belief in the second round, he fired a 72. And though it proved too little, too late to make the cut, it was proof he could compete.
Along with signing his scorecard, he wrote a note to himself: Just go for it.
The phrase could well serve as a rallying cry for the next class of Black golfers aiming to land on the APGA Collegiate Ranking.