Cameron Champ knows he has power — and he’s starting to use it
Cameron Champ called at the end of a long day. Not a bad day — just a long one. That’s what happens when you squeeze getting married, moving into a new house and launching a series of charitable efforts in between PGA Tour starts.
It’s been a big year for Champ. On the course, he logged his first top 10 in a major, made his first start at Augusta and currently sits at his highest-ever world rank: 67. Off the course, he was the PGA Tour’s most outspoken voice on issues of race, sharing his family’s own experiences with growing up Black in America.
Champ’s focus at the moment is putting actions behind words. He’s just 25 years old, but he’s become a leader on the PGA Tour — and not just in driving distance. Being a leader with a platform is a tremendous opportunity, but it can also be isolating. Champ feels both. He’s eager to keep taking on new challenges, on and off the course. But first he’s ready for a couple weeks off.
DYLAN DETHIER, GOLF: It’s the week of the Mayakoba Classic, and it’s hard to believe it’s been two years since we were in Playa del Carmen for your GOLF Mag cover shoot …
CHAMP: That’s crazy to think that it’s already two years ago. I just got married last week!
DETHIER: Yeah, I didn’t know if that was social media-official news yet. How was it?
CHAMP: It was great. It was perfect. We’re waiting on some pictures so I can post some things, but it was perfect. [Editor’s note: He then posted some things.]
DETHIER: You have one event left, the QBE Shootout, but it’s kind of winding down and feeling like the offseason. Do you get some sort of offseason honeymoon?
CHAMP: Kind of. Obviously with Covid it’s pretty hard to do anything like that, so we’re just going to hold off and wait and see how things go and hopefully by May or June we can do something. We want to go overseas, and obviously right now that’s not the smartest choice. So we’re just going to hold off, get moved into our new spot fully.
DETHIER: Are you handy around the house, moving stuff in, or do you leave that to the pros?
CHAMP: No, no! We’ve been doing that all on our own. It’s been a work in progress, we ended up going from a house in the suburbs to buying some property, so it’s just more us. You can fix the world’s problems on a mower, y’know?
DETHIER: How do you think about this year, golf-wise? Obviously it was a strange year for everyone, but how do you reflect on it?
CHAMP: It was a great year. A lot of positives to take from it. Obviously my ultimate goal was to make the Tour Championship, and I did that. Even though we had five or six events taken off the schedule, I was able to play consistently better than the previous year, and that was my main goal, really. Making small steps in order to achieve the bigger ones, and I think the way my game’s heading as of the last few months has been huge.
DETHIER: Let’s talk about being at the Masters. This was your first time at the Masters, obviously no fans this year, but it was also a cool chance to see the course without anybody there. What was that like for you?
CHAMP: It was amazing, it being my first Masters, even though it definitely sucked not having fans — the fans make that event what it is. All the guys I played with kept telling me, ‘Oh, you hear a roar, you know based on who’s in front of you or behind you what just happened.’ They were telling me about the atmosphere, with people crowding on 12 and on 16, they were saying how the holes just look so different without fans, so that was obviously a bummer.
But just playing in my first Masters, being in the field and not watching it from my couch, I’ll take that every single day. I was able to have my fiancee at the time — now wife — out there with me, which was awesome.
DETHIER: You had a solid week, too. [Champ finished T19] Is Augusta somewhere you could see yourself playing well for a while?
CHAMP: I think so, yeah. I played really well that week, if I took away two holes and played them even par I would have finished third alone, something like that. That’s just a positive to take from it. Course conditions weren’t the same as they are in April but it’s a very ball-strikey course, and if I can hit it well off the tee it sets up very well for me, and we saw that throughout the week.
DETHIER: Are you worn out after this version of the PGA Tour schedule? What’s the most tiring part as you hit this mini-offseason?
CHAMP: No, I wouldn’t say I’m tired. Everyone this time of year just wants to shut it down. I’m in Houston, and this time of year it gets very cold. It’s supposed to get to like, 29 degrees tonight. I’ve always felt that this is the time of year to just relax, enjoy Christmas and other hobbies that my wife and I like to do. I definitely wouldn’t say I’m burnt out, it’s just always been the time to shut it down and enjoy the holidays, and depending on what events are on my schedule will determine when to start practicing again.
DETHIER: With all the talk of the distance race, I’m curious if you’re like the pitcher who can just throw 105 mph and doesn’t ever need to talk about it or if you’re ever tempted to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got plenty more in the tank you guys don’t even know about.’
CHAMP: [Laughing] I’m just going to keep my mouth shut! I mean, the whole distance thing — I get what people are doing, and obviously Bryson beat me by like, 0.1 last year, but again, most people don’t know I play a 43 1/4 inch driver. So I’m two inches short of standard and I’m swinging at that speed. I was playing at 44 1/4 and then last year at New York in the playoffs I was trying to hit it a little straighter and so that’s what I’ve been playing with.
But I’ve slowly started to mess with standard-length driver, 45 inches, which is very awkward because I’ve been playing a shorter driver for so long. But obviously my ball speed and swing speed have gone up dramatically. So that’s just something I’m messing with, so the beginning of the year I might break it out and see how it goes.
DETHIER: Who’s there to help you make that decision?
CHAMP: I mean, it’s really my call. Sean [Foley] and some other people will give me advice on what to do and to do it at the right time, not during a major week or anything, but I never really switch something like that because you never know what it’s going to do in a tournament. You can hit it well at home, you can hit it well on the range, but I swing about three miles per hour faster at a tournament than I do at home. I could never get to 132 mph at home without swinging out of my shoes, but when I’m at tournaments, I make the same swing and my speed is 132, 133 and I’m not coming out of my shoes.
DETHIER: Is that adrenaline or what?
CHAMP: I’ve just always been that way. I don’t know, fully. With my physio getting my body in the right shape for that week, that helps, and whenever I’m in the hunt or playing well, it could be a mix of adrenaline, too, but just naturally I’ve been just a little bit faster on the course.
Two weeks ago, Champ announced that he had made a $40,000 donation to establish two scholarship funds at Prairie View A&M, an HBCU near Houston. The scholarships — one each for the men’s and women’s golf teams — were made in honor of his late grandfather, Mack Champ, who had dreamt of attending college there. “What a huge privilege for me and my family,” he wrote alongside the announcement.
DETHIER: Tell me what inspired you to make these donations to Prairie View A&M — this is really cool news.
CHAMP: Our foundation’s main position is to try to target kids from inner cities and minorities, using the game of golf as our platform. Now, we’re not forcing anyone to play golf, but it’s just getting the kids involved in STEM education, mentorship, tutoring, after-school programs, someone they can look up to. It’s more just giving them a voice and giving them support.
Obviously anyone who knows my background knows we didn’t really have anything at all. My parents really sacrificed everything to get me where I am now. Prairie View is only about 15 minutes from where I am now and I know a lot of our close family friends have gone there, some have played golf, so with how the year has gone, the conversations we’ve been having about racism, we have to do something instead of just talking about it.
For me, this is just a start. Me and my dad have been talking for a while trying to figure out what we can do with the game of golf and helping minorities and people of color getting into the game. Prairie View is so close to me that I felt like it was a great fit. It’s a great school, it’s growing, so it felt like a no-brainer.
DETHIER: It really feels like you’ve put your face, your energy, your voice behind these causes, and you’ve gotten increasingly comfortable speaking out. A lot of your peers prefer to play things pretty safe. What was it that made you comfortable speaking out, and what has that been like?
CHAMP: I mean, from the start, it wasn’t really comfortable because I knew what was going to happen if I said something. But with Breonna Taylor, with Jacob Blake, with all the stuff that’s been going on, it just boiled over for me. Especially with my family. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings, we’re all one. It shouldn’t be about color, or where you live or how much money you have, none of that.
In our sport, if you turn on the TV it’s 99% Caucasian males. So if people want to talk about ‘growing the game of golf,’ well, we’re missing a whole section of the world, of the United States, who aren’t even getting exposed to it because 1. It’s too expensive and 2. It’s been predominantly a white person’s game.
I knew what I was getting myself into but at that point I was just so fed up with it that I felt, regardless of what happens, I have to speak what’s on my mind and what’s honestly the truth — it’s true, hard facts — and to try to be a voice and to get things kicked into gear where people realize enough is enough, everyone keeps talking about it, it’s time to do something about it.
We started at the BMW, working with Jay [Monahan] and the Tour just to try to create programs for the kids and coordinate proper ways to do it. Inner cities are a lot different than middle-class neighborhoods. You can’t just walk into the inner cities and expect to get their acceptance. So there are definitely ways to do it, and I’m open and willing to do it in as many ways as I can, working with my father, to make change.
DETHIER: What was the feedback like, on Tour and then from the world at large?
CHAMP: Well, my agent told me there was a very small percentage of ignorant, naive people making the most ignorant comments you can make, but I already knew that stuff was coming and people were going to make their assumptions. I knew it was coming.
On Tour, there were a few guys who said something, but again, I knew it was a very uncomfortable situation for them. A lot of them didn’t come from an area like I did — or worse — and have never understood poverty. When you don’t understand it, it’s hard to speak up. I get it. It makes them uncomfortable, it’s a touchy subject, because the times we’re in now, if you say the wrong thing but you mean another, it can really backfire on you. I’m not saying anything negative at all about anybody on Tour or the Tour in general, I just knew it was going to happen and I had already accepted that.
DETHIER: I know you’re not saying anything negative, but it strikes me as unfair, the way that burden would get doubled down on you.
CHAMP: We’ll leave it at that, but I’m just saying, the nicest way I can, I understand and it is what it is. But things are getting going and I have the Tour behind us and a few other players — Charles Howell has been getting involved, which is amazing. So it’s the start. Something is kicking into second gear.
DETHIER: Where does this come from, this sense that you should speak out and do what you believe to be the right thing?
CHAMP: I think just from my family in general, and from my grandfather for sure. I know that if he was here he would do the exact same thing. A lot of my understanding comes from him and what he had to deal with.
People make comments about racism being so long ago, but they don’t realize there’s still people alive from that generation. So it’s not that long ago. We’re talking about the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and it led into the 2000s with mass incarceration — I can go on and on about this stuff. It was no more than 25 years ago, and it’s obviously still going on!
But I think a lot of my wisdom and seeking change really came from him. Understanding what he went through, the whole Champ side of my family, and how that’s affected all of them even to this day. When my grandfather wanted to marry my grandmother, they wanted to come back to the United States. But if you came back to Texas, at that time, you would have been sent to a military jail because you couldn’t marry a white woman in Texas. That’s how we ended up in Sacramento, Calif. Stuff like that changes people lives. Obviously it worked out great for my family, but a lot of people back in the day, it did not work out so well for them.
DETHIER: You’ve worn one black shoe, one white shoe at a number of Tour events, and I think I saw you with them on Sunday at the Masters, too. Is that right?
CHAMP: I did. I wanted to do something, like I said, as a tribute to my grandfather and our community. I thought that was a prime spot to do it. I love the Masters, it’s probably my favorite tournament. And with the Masters allowing Lee Elder to be one of the honorary starters, that was amazing. Lee Elder was the first-ever African American to play in the Masters, so that will be really cool to witness.