When Pete Bevacqua was on his way out the door as the CEO of PGA of America last year, he was clear about the most pressing problem facing the sport: It is still overwhelmingly a sport for rich, white men.
“The biggest challenge is, I think, the challenge that everyone in golf shares, which is how do you grow this game?” Bevacqua said. “How do you make this game more accessible and more diverse?”
On Monday, a piece of the answer came from two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry, who announced a six-year, seven-figure commitment to Howard University to establish the school’s first Division I golf program.
The University calls it a “historic stride forward to grow the game of golf.” Curry has big plans for the program, too.
“This is going to go way beyond the game of golf, way beyond Howard,” Curry said. “This is huge.”
This all started in January, when Curry visited Howard for a screening of “Emanuel,” a documentary he executive produced about the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston. As Wesley Lowery reported for The Washington Post, Howard junior Otis Ferguson approached Curry after the screening, and engaged him in a brief conversation about their mutual love of golf. He told Curry that Howard didn’t have a golf program, and casually mentioned that he’d been trying to set up a club team. Curry was intrigued, and they exchanged contact information.
Over the next couple of months, Ferguson kept Curry updated through e-mail on the status of his club team. After the NBA season ended, the Golden State Warriors star reached out to Howard, and began talks about starting a program.
Howard used to have a Division II golf program, but it was discontinued sometime in the 1970s. Like many other historically black colleges and universities, Howard athletics has not prioritized funding a golf team in the intervening decades, primarily because of the focus on revenue-generating sports such as football and basketball.
But Curry thinks it’s crucial for everyone to have access to a sport that means so much to him; it might not have been the sport that made him a multi-millionaire, but it is the sport that he says gave him access to networking circles, and helped him find mental clarity.
“Golf is a sport that has changed my life in ways that are less tangible, but just as impactful,” Curry said. “It’s a discipline that challenges your mental wherewithal from patience to focus, and is impossible to truly master, so when you hear about these passionate student athletes who have the talent but don’t have a fair shot at the game, it’s tough. I feel really honored to play a small role in the rich history of Howard University, and look forward to building their first men’s and women’s golf teams with them.”
The school aims to debut its first men’s and women’s golf teams in the 2020-21 academic year. It will start with a coach and three scholarship athletes, two for women and one for men. Curry is spreading out his donation over six years, hoping to give Howard time to raise an endowed fund to keep the program going.
Sustainability is the key.
When Tiger Woods burst onto the scene, many hoped that more black golfers would follow his lead. But over the last two decades, the sport has remained predominantly white in the United States. According to statistics the PGA of America provided Reuters last year, only 18% of recreational golfers are non-Caucasian.
Statistics are even more damning on the college and professional ranks. According to the NCAA, only 6% of all NCAA golfers last year were black, Latinx, or Native American. And currently, out of 250 active players, there are only three players of African-American descent on the PGA Tour, and four on the LPGA tour, according to The New York Times. One of the four African-American players on the LPGA tour is Cheyenne Woods, Tigers’ niece. While the LPGA often touts its diversity, it is usually referring to global diversity, not an increase in African-American participation.
The establishment of a men’s and women’s golf program at Howard won’t change all of this overnight, of course, but it is an important and high-profile step towards making the game more accessible to black communities. The hope is, breaking down that barrier of entry will open up new opportunities for black golfers, on and off the course.
“Golf has always been a game of privilege,” said Kery Davis, Howard’s athletic director. “An association with the sport can break down barriers.”