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April 2021

A New Mission For The Century-Old United Golfers Association

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By: Steve Eubanks

Today, the United Golfers Association is often thought to be a misprint, a typo, as if someone added an “ers” and left “States” out of the USGA’s name. In fact, the UGA, as it is known, is older than the PGA Tour and the LPGA and just 36 years younger than the stately organization with which it is most often confused. Formed in 1925, the United Golfers Association was created out of necessity, an organization where Black professional golfers could work, compete and scratch out a living. Ted Rhodes and Charlie Sifford played the UGA circuit. So did Lee Elder. It was the parallel organization to the PGA of America, which kept a “Caucasian Only” clause in its bylaws until 1962.

But like the old Negro League in baseball, integration in golf saw the UGA wane. Sponsors left, membership plummeted, and the mission became murky. The law of intended consequences followed. Where the 1970s saw a good representation of Black players on the PGA Tour – Elder, Jim Dent, Jim Thorpe, Calvin Peete, among others – for many years around the turn of the century, Tiger Woods stood alone.

Now, the UGA is making a comeback with a new mission to create an academy to train talented minority golfers for a future in the game. 

“We’re going to be building a brick-and-mortar facility for developing African American players,” said Andy Walker, the head men’s golf coach at Lynn University in Florida and one of the several Black players who bounced around the tours in the era of Tiger. Walker will be the director of the new academy when it opens but he speaks of it as though it’s ready to go. “This is for players who already have an interest and show some skills and desire,” Walker said. “It’s for kids who are just getting into tournament golf and who are looking to prepare and advance to the next level. That might be AJGA or then high-level amateur golf, and ultimately the tour.

“On top of golf development and training, we are introducing them to the business of golf. The numbers are embarrassing. We have 128 (Black PGA of America professionals) out of 29,000. That’s not a good representation. It’s time for someone to lift those folks up and help the next generation.”

There isn’t a location yet – South Florida is the leading contender – but the new mission couldn’t be more concrete. “We’ve always asked nothing more than to belong,” Walker said. “Now it’s time to develop our own. I’m a player first and I want to expose these kids to everything in golf through being a player first. It was my route. I played in college (at Pepperdine), played on tour and then got into coaching. My college roommate, Jason Gore, had a successful run on the tour and is now with the USGA. I’ve seen all sides of the game and the industry. So, we’re going to have a full developmental academy that will expose these kids to all aspects of the business and the game but do so through rigorous training in golf.”

These are lofty goals, but athletic academies are like dandelions;  they pop up every spring and vanish by winter. What will make the UGA Academy different?

“These players are going to feel comfortable,” Walker said. “Plus, they’re going to learn in what is very much a team environment. It’s a structure that has worked in the past. But it’s also in an environment where they’re training with fellow athletes who look like them and who might have experienced some of the same things, the same challenges.

“Making it to the professional ranks in golf is hard for anybody. I’m not just saying that’s true for African Americans. It’s hard for everybody. But there are things I can share with them about being a Black PGA Tour player that other people can’t. I’ve been in the locker room where I was told that the caddies check in outside when I have my tour badge on. I get it. I can pass my experiences on to them.

“Getting them comfortable seeing other people like them doing it is the goal. African Americans don’t feel comfortable at the next level for a couple of reasons. They don’t see a lot of people like themselves there. And, in a lot of cases, they don’t know what the next level looks like. We will train them and prepare them as you would anyone else. But it will be very African American-centric.”

Walker’s metrics for success are simple: golf at every level – high-level amateur, touring professional, PGA of America member, and club owner – should look like the rest of America.  

“There are a lot of players who are close to making it to the next level, but something is missing. Our job is getting them over that hump by showing them what that next level requires,” Walker said. “There are tons of talented, great Black players out there and we just don’t know about them yet. My job is to make sure they don’t fall by the wayside. When they don’t have the support team in place, don’t have the example set, don’t have the mechanisms in place to help them make it to the next level, it’s easy for them to walk away and go pick up a basketball because they see other people who look like them playing over there. And that support system is already in place.

“We know that golf is different. We know that there is a physical side but also a mental and emotional side. Being trained in those aspects of the game by someone who looks like them, and hearing from players who have been there in the past, will be a big help.” 

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