In the 1990s, a 20-something Wendell Haskins was starting to make his way in New York City, confident that his feel for African American-infused pop culture would soon make him a connoisseur of cool.
As the son of former National Urban League senior vice president William Haskins, Wendell had mentors that included venerated figures of the civil-rights movement like Jesse Jackson and Vernon Jordan. As a roommate of Sean (Diddy) Combs, Haskins absorbed the lessons of tireless entrepreneurship and applied them to his interests in hip-hop, fashion and creative development with artists including LL Cool J, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Terrence Howard.
That led to a close association with the NBA, where Haskins helped put on events like halftime shows at the All-Star Game, even designing the jackets worn at the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players ceremony in 1997. It led to enduring friendships with icons like Julius Erving and Magic Johnson and earned Haskins a reputation among influential blacks as a tastemaker and trend-spotter. “Wendell knows everybody, and everybody knows Wendell,” says George (Iceman) Gervin, one of those 50 Greatest. “You want to look good, or you want to put together a successful event that people will remember, you talk to Wendell.”
Haskins’ skill set and connections would have served him well in any number of endeavors. Improbably—some might say quixotically—and definitely idealistically, for the past two decades he has focused on the world of golf.
As the founder of a tournament and former PGA of America senior director of diversity and multicultural initiatives, Haskins has put himself on the forefront of the struggle to increase the presence and prominence of African Americans in golf.
“I love the game and its history, and I love black people,” says Haskins, 49. “I know all three of those entities become valuable to the world the more they intersect. And that’s what I try to do.”
Those who have embarked on a similar journey in the past have experienced frustration more than fulfillment. After decades in which black golf resided on the game’s periphery, a breakthrough phase seemed in the offing after a steady series of events in the 1990s: private clubs admitting their first African American members in the wake of Shoal Creek, Michael Jordan as the most famous athlete in the world becoming an avid golfer, the spectacular emergence of Tiger Woods and the establishment and immediate growth of The First Tee. Still, in 2017 the percentage of black men and women on the professional tours, at public and private courses, and in decision-making positions in the golf industry and leading organizations remains relatively unchanged.
‘These are cool people playing a cool game. … the golf industry has not done enough to use these influencers as assets to market and popularize the sport.’
According to National Golf Foundation figures from 2016, the number of African American golfers has dropped to 800,000, down from a high of 1.5 million in 2007. But the NGF says there is evidence of more black golfers in the junior segment (defined as ages 6 to 17). In the mid-1990s, only one out of 17 junior golfers was non-white. The ratio today is nearly one out of three.
On the PGA Tour, Harold Varner III is the only active African American player and only the third to have a playing card this century, joining Woods and Joseph Bramlett. Joe Louis Barrow is retiring after 18 years of leading The First Tee and will be succeeded by another African American, Keith Dawkins. The golf industry’s only other top black executive is the president of Nike Golf, Daric Ashford. Perhaps most telling, of the nearly 28,000 PGA of America professionals—first point of contact for lessons and welcoming players to the game—only 114 members and 46 apprentices are black.
Also of concern are possible attitudinal changes resulting from a country that is increasingly divided along political and racial lines. Although President Donald Trump is the first inhabitant of the White House to own golf courses and is a single-digit player, his belief that golf should be an “aspirational” game is at odds with the goals of golf’s organizations, which want minorities to make up a bigger percentage of overall golfers. The culture clash was apparent before the U.S. Women’s Open at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey, when two prominent African Americans, NYU history professor Jeffrey Sammons and golf historian Calvin Sinnette, resigned from the USGA’s museum committee after writing letters urging the organization to cut ties with Trump because of his controversial statements on gender and race.
The golf landscape seemed more promising in 2000, when Haskins began his tournament. He had begun playing only two years before, after his curiosity had been piqued by NBA players’ conversations. “So often, it was all about golf, where they had played or were going to play next, some idea about the golf swing,” he says. “I was surprised—they were clearly doing it all the time.”
Haskins was brought into the game by another African American arbiter of urban cool, Michael Vann, then a part owner of Shark Bar, a former soul-food kitchen on the Upper West Side known as a hangout for luminaries like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. Haskins built his game by hitting thousands of balls toward the Hudson River at the Chelsea Piers range and endured beginner’s trials on Brooklyn’s Dyker Beach Golf Course.
The graduate of historically black Hampton University also read Sinnette’s Forbidden Fairways and Pete McDaniel’s Uneven Lies. When Haskins learned that the golf tee was invented by an African American doctor, George F. Grant, in 1899, he conceived of his event and began synergizing his relationships with entertainers, athletes and sponsors. He set up an honoree, a charity and a purpose of inclusion to inspire new golfers. For the past 18 years, the event has been played at Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, N.J.
Through the tournament and his friendship with frequent Barack Obama golf partner Alonzo Mourning, Haskins was the force behind Charlie Sifford receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2014, two months before Sifford died.
Renee Powell, the second black woman to play on the LPGA Tour—there are currently three African Americans playing regularly on the tour, Cheyenne Woods, Mariah Stackhouse and Sadena Parks—grew up on and still runs Clearview Golf Club near Akron, Ohio. That’s where her father, Bill, became the only African American to design, build, own and operate a golf course. Renee says that Haskins’ staging of The Original Tee Golf Classic presented by BMW has been respectfully nostalgic.
“Wendell is such a dynamic host,” says Powell, 71. “He makes sure everyone who attends feels very special, so that the newcomers realize that we are not only allowed in this world, but that it offers opportunity. It reminds me of the UGA [black-operated United Golf Association] tournaments in the ’50s, where Joe Louis and Billy Eckstine would come, and there were men’s and women’s and junior competitions at the same time. We gathered together, and that was important then, and it’s important now. Because the climate in our country right now is not the greatest climate for a minority.”
Says Haskins: “These are cool people playing a cool game. They influence other people to do things that they do, and the golf industry has not done enough to use these influencers as assets to market and popularize the sport. I mean, don’t you think golf can use any dose of coolness it can get?”
Cool has become a mantra as golf tries to broaden its audience and get younger. But hopes that the game might be getting more diverse is usually the result of short eruptions of enthusiasm. The male and female winners of the nationally televised Mile High Showdown World Long Drive Championship, Maurice Allen and Troy Mullins, are African Americans. Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry shooting two 74s at a Web.com event demonstrated real golf chops, making him the most influential golfer among pro athletes.
Read more by Dom Furore at GolfDigest.com