Written by William I. Dawson
Throughout the years, African Americans have made their presence felt on the golf course. A look at the historical timeline shows achievements going all the way back to 1896, when John Shippen played in the second U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where he worked as a caddie, at the age of 17. In 1899, George Grant, a dentist in Boston, invented the modern wooden golf tee. Joseph Bartholomew began designing golf courses in the 1920s that he couldn’t play on. It was 1956 when Ann Gregory became the first African-American woman to enter the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Decades before Tiger Woods won his first major in 1997, several “firsts” took place including Charlie Sifford becoming the first African-American player to earn a PGA Tour card in 1961, Calvin Peete winning the first of his 12 career PGA Tour victories in 1979, and the establishment of the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in 1986.
However, one date stands out in bold type on the achievement timeline: 1926. That’s when Robert Hawkins staged the first tournament exclusively for African Americans, and two years before he created the United Golf Associations, which ultimately established a tour for players excluded from PGA events.
Today, following in that path for players of color is the Advocates Pro Golf Association (APGA), which is a golf tour that aims to bring greater diversity to the game of golf by developing African Americans and other minorities for careers in the sport.
It was Ken Bentley, a former executive at Nestle USA, along with PGA Tour pro Adrian Stills, who created the APGA out of a need for African-American professional golfers to have what the United Golf Association once had, spaces of their own to grow and hone their skills.
The APGA started with three tournaments in 2010. Now, as it celebrates its 10th anniversary, it’s up to seven tournaments per year, with over $250,000 in prize money.
In a recent interview, Bentley, who is now the CEO of the APGA, broke down how the tour is making a difference for the next generation. “For me, it’s all about the kids, introducing them to the game, and not only giving them lessons, but also introducing them to health and wellness and careers," Bentley explained. "I believe the next Tiger Woods is out there in some of those classes, so it’s important through the APGA Foundation that we bring them out and let them hold golf clubs for the first time, letting them see that playing the sport is possible.”
The tour has partnered with inner-city youth organizations to introduce both boys and girls to the game. In addition to the lessons, the APGA sponsors diversity symposiums where leaders of the minority golf community gather to discuss ways to best introduce diversity. It’s all about access, according to Cole Smith, who serves as executive director of the APGA. “There are different resources available to the youth that we’re proud of, one being the First Tee program that’s doing a lot to provide access to public courses,” Smith said.
As signature sponsor of the APGA tour since 2016, Lexus continues to take the lead as a champion of diversity, especially when it comes to golf. The luxury auto brand has long been partners with professional golfers. The partnership with the APGA expands those efforts of inclusion and opportunity by committing its resources to the tour, including the presentation of the Lexus Cup, which provides a bonus pool for tour players that is an additional $30,000 for the winners.
According to the tour members, that support has been invaluable. Clay Myers, who has been on the APGA tour for the past five years, calls Lexus’s sponsorship a “tremendous benefit for all of us players. It means a lot when it comes to financial consideration for sure, but also when it comes to growing diversity in the game. There are aspiring players that wouldn’t have access to a course if it wasn’t for that support.”
“We’re honored to be associated with Lexus,” Bentley said when asked about the partnership. “They have been at the forefront of diversity in golf for many, many years, having a partnership with Charlie Sifford and I think that’s one of the reasons Charlie was able to do so well on the PGA tour.” Bentley added that because of the sponsorship dollars, the APGA has been able to provide additional scholarships to deserving youth across the country. “This relationship is about more than just the tournaments. It’s also about being able to bring the game that we love to so many young people and introduce them to a sport that they can play for a lifetime.”
Sitting atop APGA tour leader board is Tim O’Neal, whose story is tightly aligned with the APGA. The 46-year-old Jackson State University alum seemed destined to be the next great African-American player on the PGA tour 20 years ago. He was a Georgia State amateur champion and had won 16 tournaments in college. “It just didn’t work out the way I thought it would,” he confessed during a recent interview. The APGA has provided him a place to play though some of his ups and downs. He has won five times on the circuit and just last year was named Player of the Year.
Providing golfers like O’Neal with a platform to work on their game and hopefully achieve as much success as their talent will allow is the value of the tour. It’s a movement that will go down in history as being a difference maker and having an impact on the sport, thus proving that African Americans will continue to be present and accounted for on the golf course into the foreseeable future.