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As the leader on the final hole of the National Minority College Golf Championship strolled up the 18th fairway at Cleveland's Highland Park Golf Course on May 22, everything appeared to be in order. Coaches and competitors from the 15 participating historically black institutions applauded politely as the soon-to-be champion, clad in the royal blue and white of Jackson State University, flashed a smile and acknowledged the gallery with a wave. The scene was predictable except for one thing. The Minority College Golf champion was Mike O'Toole, a blond, blue-eyed junior from Granite Falls, Minn.
O'Toole is the poster boy for a revolutionary campaign led by Jackson State coach Eddie Payton. His Tigers, composed of three whites, an Asian and a black, won the minority tournament by 28 shots. Payton has no qualms about recruiting white golfers to play for him. " Jerry Tarkanian coaches at a predominantly white school, but you'll see 10 brothers on the UNLV basketball team," says Payton. "We're just trying to put together the best team, regardless of color, to try to qualify for the NCAAs."
The field for the 30-team NCAA Division I tournament is made up of the top 9 to 11 finishers in teams from each of three regional tournaments. A committee issues the bids to the regionals, basing its selections largely on how teams perform in regular-season invitational tournaments. (The top two players from each regional tournament who are on nonqualifying teams also advance to the finals.) The minority schools usually aren't on the guest lists of these tournaments because they don't face enough first-rate competition to upgrade the caliber and reputation of their teams. "It's a Catch-22," says Payton. "To qualify for the NCAAs you have to play the best teams, but to play the best you have to be invited to their tournaments." Thus it may take a team like Payton's, with a majority of white players, to reach that echelon.
A recent study by the Elder Sports Management and Instructional Institute in Washington, D.C., found that the number of blacks playing recreational golf in the U.S. tripled in the 1980s, to nearly half a million. Only two of them, however, Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe, play on the PGA Tour. The last black woman to enter an LPGA event was Renee Powell, 11 years ago. The Elder Institute's chief consultant, Lee Elder, is one of only five blacks competing on the Senior tour.
Why the scarcity? In 1961, Charlie Sifford became the first black eligible to play in PGA tournaments when the PGA voted down its long-standing "Caucasians-only" rule. These days the roadblocks are less obvious, but equally frustrating.
Ten years ago in Detroit, Selina ( Hollywood) Johnson's five-year-old daughter, Jamila, asked her mother if she could try golf. As she saw it, Johnson had two options: She could say no or start what would become the Hollywood Golf Institute. Johnson, a divorced mother of two and a former Detroit airport cop, who got her nickname by singing and dancing at neighborhood parties, has built the institute into a mecca for underprivileged girls and boys, ages four to 23, who are interested in golf. Johnson collects golf equipment donated by local country clubs and players as well as by golf-equipment manufacturers around the country. She lobbies for time at reduced rates at municipal and private courses and driving ranges. She also tries to get the most talented of her students college golf scholarships. "I'm doing this as an investment in our children," says Johnson. "The future of minority golf is in the youth programs."
Without exposure to a youth program, most minority kids would never try golf. Most can't hop into the family station wagon and go hit a bucket at the country club, many of which still resist black membership. Unlike football, which can be played in a sandlot with a hand-me-down pigskin or on the high school junior varsity team, golf requires expensive lessons and equipment and is rarely offered by inner-city high schools.
Should a kid be one of the few who choose golf over the lures of the gridiron, the hard court, the diamond or the street, he or she would do well to attract the attention of Bill Dickey. As president of the National Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association, Dickey scours the country in search of talented minority golfers. He then arranges matches between golfers and colleges with scholarships to offer. In addition, Dickey's association has itself given out $70,000 in scholarships during its six years in business.
Three years ago Dickey met Chris Brown of Minneapolis at a junior tournament in Louisville. Brown was not sure where he would go to college, so Dickey introduced him to Larry Coleman, the coach at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., who signed him on the spot. Brown, who will be a senior in the fall, began playing golf at age nine. Despite his 6'6" frame, he was not diverted by roundball. "One of my pet peeves is that I'm stereotyped because I'm 6'6" and black," says Brown. "People are always saying I should be playing basketball, and why am I wasting my time with golf."
Rod Lathern must wonder occasionally whether he isn't, in fact, wasting his time. If Lathern, 24, a year out of one of the best black collegiate golf programs in the country—South Carolina State's—had a dime for every letter he has written to potential sponsors asking for the money to enable him to attend the PGA Tour's qualifying school, he would be there by now. Entry into the school, a three-stage tournament that costs about $2,750, affords a participant the chance to be one of 3,000 to 4,000 golfers vying for 50 Tour cards.