Sixty-six-year-old Walt Braddy has been a die-hard Jackson (Miss.) State fan since he was a boy growing up in Florence, a hamlet 15 miles south of Jackson. Braddy moved to Toledo, Ohio, 46 years ago but has kept tabs on the Tigers through one of his seven brothers, Robert, who played baseball at Jackson State and since 1972 has coached the team there.
So a couple of weeks ago, after Robert called to say that the Tigers' golf team had made it into the NCAA tournament, Walt started making plans, and there he was last week at the University of Michigan Golf Course in Ann Arbor watching the Tigers in the Central regional. "I'm so proud," he said. "You know, this is the first time in history that a team from a black college has been in the NC two-A golf championship. What makes me even prouder, we have so many white boys. [Four of the Tigers' five starters were white.] We finally integrated. When I grew up down there, things were segregated. It should have been this way all the time."
This year Jackson State had to settle for making history instead of the NCAA finals. The Tigers finished 16th out of 21 teams and only the top 10 advanced to next week's Division I championship at the Honors Course outside Chattanooga. Jackson State shot 294 the first day—the best four of five scores are counted toward a team's total in each of the three rounds—and was tied for eighth, but that would be the Tigers' high point. They finished 48 over par at 900, 29 strokes behind Texas A&M, the winner, and 18 shots behind 10th-place Oklahoma. Nevertheless, the season was a huge success. Jackson State won more tournaments (eight) than any Division I team and an eighth straight Southwestern Athletic Conference championship (by 85 strokes). Five players won individual tournament titles, while senior Brian Bert and junior Craig Hocknull are finalists for Academic All-America honors.
Not bad for a program that 10 years ago was on the brink of extinction. Credit goes lo Eddie Payton, the older brother of Walter and himself a veteran of nine seasons in the NFL. When Payton took over as coach at Jackson State in 1986, many historically black colleges did not field a golf team, much less one that could compete nationally on a Division I level. Payton began with no budget, no practice facilities and no invitations to tournaments hosted by the established golf schools. What he needed most of all was talented players, and he didn't care what color they were. Mike O'Toole, who enrolled at Jackson State in 1988, was Payton's first white recruit and the first white to play golf for any of the historically black colleges, though white scholarship athletes had competed for them in other sports since the mid-'60s.
Raised in Granite Falls, Minn., a town of 3,500 with only a handful of blacks, O'Toole was open-minded but concerned about potential racial problems that he might face—"I never really knew a black person before going to Jackson," he says. Now an assistant pro at Coffin Golf Course in Indianapolis, O'Toole blossomed at Jackson State, winning the National Minority Championship, which is the biggest tournament of the year for historically black colleges, in 1990. "Blacks went out of their way to befriend me," he says. "During the Rodney King riots, tensions were high on campus. Later I found out that some football players had trailed me for a few days to make sure nothing happened to me."
Over the years Jackson State's white golfers have been involved in a few minor racial incidents, but on the whole their experience has been a positive one. "It's like being a grain of salt in a pepper shaker," says Bert. "I wouldn't trade my time here for anything. It's been the greatest thing I've ever done in my life. I've learned that we're all just people."
Payton minces no words about the predominance of whites on his team. "Some people question why we don't have more black kids," he says. "If we did, we wouldn't be competitive." Like their coach, the players don't understand all the fuss. "All the brothers get accepted to the big white schools to play basketball," says Mike Brennan, one of three Australians on the golf team. "Here all the white guys get accepted to play golf. What's the difference?"
Hocknull, an Aussie from Queensland, sent applications to 30 U.S. coaches. Payton was the only one who offered him a full ride. Hocknull happily accepted, unaware of the school's racial makeup, which is 92% black. "My first few days I kept wondering when the white people were going to show up," says Hocknull. "After a couple days Coach gave me the lowdown."
The Aussies have fit in well, too well say some. "They get all the girls," laments Hugh Smith, a black teammate. "We go out, and I end up sitting alone while they're surrounded. Black women love that accent."
Smith, who saw limited action this season, was one of two blacks on the eight-man Jackson State roster. The other was Tim O'Neal, a co-captain and the team's No. 1 player. A junior from Savannah, O'Neal is 5'11", muscular and blessed with a powerful, compact swing similar to Tiger Woods's. Ranked among the top 50 collegians at the start of the season, O'Neal racked up three wins and a team-best 73.50 stroke average, despite playing poorly at the regional, where he shot 225 and finished 65th. During the three years he has attended Jackson State, O'Neal has won eight collegiate events and two Savannah city championships. Last summer he was third in the Georgia State Amateur. The Tigers might play two additional African-Americans next season. Payton has signed blue-chip recruits Eric Dandridge, a top-ranked schoolboy in Illinois, and John Roddy, one of the best prospects from the Washington, D.C., area.