When Tiger Woods electrified the golf world in 1997 by winning the Masters by a record-shattering 12 strokes, the expectation was that his achievement would inspire African American youths to take up the game and perhaps work toward a career that would lead them to the PGA Tour.
For more than a decade after that, however, the roster of Black players on the tour continued to consist of Woods and no one else. From California, business executive Ken Bentley wondered why there weren’t more golfers of color playing at the game’s highest level and contacted his friend, Adrian Stills, who played on the tour in 1986.
What resulted was the birth in 2010 of the Advocates Pro Golf Association, a non-profit organization that strives to bring greater diversity for the game, providing opportunities to African Americans and other people of color not just in competitive golf, but also on the business side of the sport.
After starting with three tournaments and $40,000 in purses in its first year, the APGA Tour schedule in 2021 consists of 13 tournaments and $350,000 in prize money. One stop is scheduled for Sept. 20-22 at Bluestone Country Club in Blue Bell, the tour’s first visit to the Northeastern United States.
Bentley, a retired executive at Nestle USA and the organization’s CEO, said the mission statement has evolved from not just creating playing opportunities but to prepare members for the highly competitive PGA Tour.
“When we surveyed the players a year or so ago, we found many of them hadn’t been fitted for their clubs,” he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “They just got clubs off the rack. They were given clubs. The clubs were three or four years old. They were practicing on First Tee courses. So they didn’t have access to technologies in golf.
“So we really felt like if we wanted to achieve that original mission of getting guys on tour, we had to have a player development program where we gave them the resources to make it on tour. So we started really focusing on the player development aspect.”
According to Bentley, players are now fitted for clubs. The APGA has a partnership with technology companies TrackMan and Arccos. Nationally known instructors such as Sean Foley, Todd Anderson and Dana Dahlquist are helping. A training program has been set up to improve fitness.
One of the biggest boosts to the organization has been the involvement of the PGA Tour since 2012. Bentley said the tour initially provided cash but has expanded the partnership since then, including providing courses in the TPC network, which it owns and operates, for APGA tournaments and the use of its resources such as communications and marketing.
PGA Tour players Charles Howell III, Billy Horschel and Patrick Reed have helped provide funding to the organization, Bentley said. Tour members Tony Finau, Cameron Champ and Joseph Bramlett have participated in APGA events through the years.
Stills, general manager and director of golf at Osceola Golf Course in Pensacola, Fla., and the APGA’s director of player development, said the opportunity to play upgraded courses is a major benefit for players.
“Having the opportunity to play on really good tour-quality golf courses was something that I’m sure they may not have been expecting,” he said. “But now they’re getting this opportunity that I know from personal experience how important that is, being able to develop a golf game that you can put on the road against good players on good golf courses is really good. I think the guys are starting to get a sense of that now, so I think it’s been great for them.”
The 2021 APGA tour has taken or will take contestants to TPC courses at Scottsdale, Louisiana and Deere Run, each the home of a PGA Tour event, as well as major championship venues Torrey Pines and Valhalla.
Two APGA members, Willie Mack III and Kamaiu Johnson, received exemptions for PGA Tour events this year. Mack competed in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines and the Genesis Invitational at Riviera. Johnson, who initially received an exemption to the Torrey Pines event but withdrew after testing positive for the coronavirus, participated in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Honda Classic.
Winner of 65 mini-tour events, Mack, 32, of Orlando, missed the cut at both tournaments, but perhaps his best memory was sitting down for lunch with Woods at the Genesis Invitational, just days before Woods’ near-fatal traffic accident.
“Just being able to pick his brain and be around him for an hour was pretty cool,” Mack said. “He pretty much told me to just keep grinding and fighting for it and hopefully that can send me out there sooner than later. But he was just encouraging and excited for my success and hopefully I can get out there.”
It’s been a long road for Mack, originally from Flint, Mich., who turned pro in 2011 after becoming the first African American to win the Michigan Amateur. He went to the PGA Tour’s qualifying tournament and fell two shots short of advancing to the final stage. Things got worse for him the next two years.
“That’s when I slept in my car on and off for a year and a half,” he said. “But after that, it’s just been ups and downs. That’s how golf is. The last couple of years I’d say have been pretty good.”
Mack and Johnson are now brand ambassadors for Farmers Insurance but the cost of playing golf for most players at the level needed to advance in the pro ranks remains an obstacle with travel, lodging and entry fees. Bentley suggested that golf should follow the example of the U.S. Tennis Association, which helps its young players financially.
“The USTA takes care of the travel expenses, the equipment is all taken care of,” he said. “So pretty much the USTA has taken cost out of the equation and I think that’s why you see so many African American women ranked in the top 100 in tennis. So I think at some point, golf’s going to have to do that if they want to really want to make that huge leap and diversify the game.”
Bentley said the APGA tour has two principal sponsors in Lexus and Farmers Insurance and that more are on the way. Lexus, the tour’s presenting sponsor, awarded a car to 2020 player of the year Tim O’Neill.
The APGA also assists college players, partnering with the PGA Tour in a weekly ranking. Bentley said the top five graduating seniors will be sponsored into APGA events and then have their entry fees covered by the PGA Tour for the Korn Ferry Tour qualifying school.
In addition, he said eight spots in APGA tournaments are reserved for college and high school players.
Bentley said he plans to launch a women’s APGA next year and that the PGA Tour has pledged its support. He said the goal once the venture is undertaken is to “have the same prize money, the same player development program, we have the same resources for the women that we have for the men.”
Then there is the continued evolution of the APGA in increased opportunities such as with equipment, course management and the PGA of America and the golf professional business.
“There’s a lot of dialogue and there’s a lot of plans that are finally starting to at least be put in place,” Stills said. “We’re looking forward to everybody following through, and for the other side of the coin, our players and our guys following through to pursue those opportunities also. So it’s definitely in a better place and trending the right direction as far as I’m concerned.”