The most important golf tournament this week will not be the Wells Fargo Tour stop in Charlotte or the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic in Prattville, Ala., or even the Trophee Hassan II at the Royal Golf Dar Es Salam course, in Rabat, as the European tour makes its annual pilgrimage to Morocco. Not that those events won’t be a good time.
But the best—the most interesting, the most culturally significant—event this week will be the Minority Collegiate Golf Championship, a 54-hole team-and-individual event that begins on Friday at the PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
The tournament brings together 148 golfers, men and women, of a rainbow coalition of backgrounds. There will be 23 five-person teams representing every historically black college and university (HBCUs, in the shorthand) in the country with a golf team. There will also be 33 minority golfers from a variety of schools playing as individuals.
Will a black golfer be the male medalist? Will an Asian golfer be the female medalist? Will an all-white team win the Division I team competition? (Many of the players on the HBCU golf teams are white.) Who will be the low Pacific-Island American golfer?
You know what? Nobody cares! Yes, there all sorts of ways into this event. But once you are in it, you are in the most wildly diverse golf tournament played anywhere in the world and from that point on, the only thing that matters is this age-old question: What did you shoot?
The tournament is in its 30th year. There might have been a time—as when Sean Foley played in this tournament in its early days, representing Tennessee State—that observers and coaches and players were more focused on who came from what background. That was then. The world had changed over the past 30 years. Do you ever hear anybody talking about Tiger Woods as “an African-American golfer?” Not since he won the 1997 Masters. Two coaches for HBCU schools, one from Savannah State and another from Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, told me the same thing: They recruit on the basis of athletic skill, academic prowess and sociability. After that, the chips fall where they may. The Savannah State men’s team is all white. The Bethune-Cookman golf team features a young black man, Leon Fricker, from England who stands 6’4″ and crushes it. Both teams will be competitive. It takes all kinds.
It’s more than the tournament. The championship is run by the PGA of America. Scooter Clark, who coaches the men’s and women’s teams at Bethune-Cookman, said the event is conducted just like all the other events the PGA conducts. In other words, like clockwork. That means knowledgeable rules officials, accurate scoreboards, quality range balls—the whole kit-and-caboodle.
The event begins with a competitors’ dinner on Thursday night. Gary Sheffield, who hit 509 home runs as a major leaguer and a many more long fouls as an ordinary golfer, will speak at the dinner. So will Wyatt Worthington, who played in the tournament as recently as 2010 and last year was one shot away from qualifying for the 2015 PGA Championship. There are opportunities to learn about professions in golf and important—awful but apt phrase—networking opportunities for young people trying to find their way in the adult world. CastleOak Securities, a New York financial firm, helps fund the event. Its presence is significant: the culture of golf is still an enormous part of life at places like Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan, to say nothing of Showtime’s Axe Capital. The social skills learned in golf can lead to careers.
But that’s secondary, or even further on the depth chart than that. Art Gelow, the veteran coach at Savannah State, says the tournament is a good time, with strong competition and a reward for the players at the end of school year that can get long, academically and athletically.
“We drive down there together in two or three cars,” Gelow said the other day. “The men stay in one condo and the women in another. We eat our meals together, go to the range, root for each other. The seniors are choosing to play in this tournament instead of attending their graduation.”
The only tournament his kids would rather play in is the NCAA Golf Championship, this year held in late May in Eugene, Ore. That’s a great and important championship, won by Ben Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson and Sandy Tatum. But it’s not as interesting—not as diverse, international, culturally meaningful—as the event that will be played this week in Port St. Lucie.