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Reverse Field
Jon Wertheim
May 11, 1998
The majority was out in force at the National Minority championship
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May 11, 1998

Reverse Field

The majority was out in force at the National Minority championship

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Even among a diverse crew I of participants representing 19 historically black schools. Hampton senior William Schaffer stood out at last week's National Minority College Tournament in Port Saint Lucie, Fla. In a field with 108 Generation Xers who were stressing out about three-putting and finding a summer job, there was Schaffer, a 42-year-old retired Army sergeant, far more concerned about calling his wife, Mallory, and three-year-old daughter, Savanna, back at their new four-bedroom house in Hampton, Va. As his teammates argued over whether rap or R & B would blare from the stereo in the team van, Schaffer made a valiant, if predictably futile, pitch for Jefferson Airplane and The Who. "I try to stay young, but these guys have no taste," he says, absentmindedly stroking his graying temples. "Listening to their music sure doesn't help keep the wrinkles down."

Fortunately age can be a virtue on the golf course, where Schaffer has been Hampton's best player since his freshman year. His biggest asset is Gandhi-like equanimity. Through birdies and bogeys, Schaffer's demeanor was unchanged, a solemn Faldoesque expression welded to his face as he shot a 19-over-par 235 for the three rounds and finished 17th. "I don't get too high or too low; that's the discipline I got from the military," says Schaffer, who was named a Minority College All-America at last year's championship. "Golf can be a humbling experience, but you have to learn to keep your focus. At an event like this, patience and maturity can be two more things that make me different from everyone else."

One characteristic, however, that didn't distinguish Schaffer last week was the fact that he is "as white as they come," a former hippie from rural Minnesota who was already sunburned by the time he reached the 2nd tee. Despite the tournament's name and affiliation, roughly half the golfers in the event were Caucasian, including six of the top 10 finishers. Bethune-Cookman, which led the team standings after the first day, had only one minority among its five players—Dallas Anderson, a Tuscarora Indian from Ontario. Jackson State's team, which won the title by 10 strokes, was a mini United Nations, fielding players from Australia, Great Britain, the U.S. and Zimbabwe, with an Irish recruit on the way.

"It's definitely weird," says Hampton junior Ollie (Chucky) Walker, of Memphis, who took up the game at age 12. "You think you're playing in a minority championship, but you come down here and it feels like you're playing against Villanova or Princeton. You don't want to say it should only be open to us black kids, but maybe this tournament needs to change its name."

Now 12 years old, the National Minority has become an insecure adolescent, struggling with its identity during a period of awkward growth. Launched in 1987 to try to counter golf's exclusionary image and elevate the game among minorities, the inaugural championship featured all-black teams from a handful of predominantly black colleges and universities. For the first 11 years the event was held at the Highland Park Golf Course in Cleveland, a municipal track best remembered for its muddy fairways and bumpy greens. This year, after the PGA of America agreed to cosponsor the championship, it relocated to the PGA Golf Club at the Reserve, a luxurious 36-hole layout designed by Tom Fazio with greens as smooth as billiard tables. The players were feted like Tour pros and lodged on-site in posh condominiums.

As the event has grown dramatically in participation and stature, so has the pressure to win. Consequently, coaches are recruiting the best golfers they can, regardless of race. Recalling the rhetoric Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins employed in 1966 when he made history by winning an NCAA title with a team that started five African-Americans, many coaches here spoke unapologetically of fielding the best five golfers, no matter what the team picture might look like. "My goal is to get to the NCAA tournament, and to do that I need to recruit the best players out there; that's all there is to it," says Jackson State coach Eddie Payton, whose team has won the National Minority eight of the last nine years. "Besides, this championship is for schools whose student body has been predominantly minority. That doesn't mean the golf teams have to be."

It's a bit of Jesuitical reasoning, to be sure, yet technically Payton is correct. "I would consider looking at opportunities to provide additional financial incentives for schools that enhance their minority participation," says Hector Allen, the president of the National Minority College Golf Scholarship Fund, another sponsor of the event. "But as things stand now, we can't tell the coaches at historically black colleges whom they can and can't recruit."

Still, Payton's sentiments are hardly unanimous among his colleagues. "I'm not going to rule out recruiting anyone, but my goal is to give young minority kids a chance," says Talladega coach Alfred Baker, whose all-black team includes Jim Dent Jr., the son of the Senior tour player. "We may get beat, but I refuse to sell out. I feel an obligation to try to offer my scholarships to kids who can really use the opportunity."

The curious composition of the teams notwithstanding, the week was still geared toward the minority players. Before last Thursday's practice round every team attended a job fair, at which representatives from 15 corporations discussed career opportunities for minority golfers. Not that they didn't make some noise on the course. Jackson State senior Hugh Smith, for example, shot a one-under 72-72-71-215 to win the individual title.

Minority participation in golf has nearly doubled since 1990, according to the National Golf Foundation, and the growth has been particularly strong among kids. "It's all about accessibility, and I guarantee that in the next few years you'll see a lot of minority golfers getting college scholarships," says Payton. "It's just that right now there are not all that many good players."

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