Making Golf a Game for Minorities
Elijah Walker is the pro at the only city-owned course for children in the US - and it's free
TOBIN JONES could see only a bit of "Confederate memorabilia" in last year's controversy over the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) championship tournament at Alabama's all-white Shoal Creek Country Club. Golfing since he was six, the 13-year-old black Atlantan has been absorbing the skills and nuances of a game that he seems barely aware has historically been the exclusive realm of white-male bonding. And he is undaunted.
That's just how golf-pro Elijah Walker wants it as he works to expose minority children to a game that is perhaps harder for them to gain access to than it is to play.
Mr. Walker runs the Atlanta Junior Golf Program at the John A. White Park. A wooded and hilly five-hole course, it is the only city-owned golf facility for children in the country. It is, say prominent black golfers, an example of the only way minorities in great numbers will ever begin to have a piece of the action.
"Access to juniors [white or black] to courses is one of the biggest obstacles," says Joe Steranka, senior director of communications for the PGA. "How does a child get to the course to begin with, if the parent can't take them [to the mainly suburban facilities], and how does he pay greens fees of $30 or more?"
Handful of black pros
That's why Walker's course and program are so important. It's free, and it's for kids.
The 100 Atlanta children who participate in the city's free program "are being exposed to a game that, without an Elijah Walker, they'd never be exposed to," says Calvin Peete, a black PGA tour golfer who runs a foundation promoting the sport among inner-city youths.
Mr. Walker is one of only a handful of black golf-teaching pros in the United States, most of whom had their first exposure to golf as country club caddies. Though the wiry athlete's golf career has been hedged in by overt as well as subtle racism, he remains an easygoing presence, comfortable on the links. Despite tight city finances and the emphasis on more traditional sports for youths, Walker has not hesitated to seize every opportunity to build the junior golf program.
The reason Walker is here is that his career as a pro in Alabama had reached the unspoken limits that racism put on it.
At age 7, he became a caddy for the the Huntsville (Ala.) Country Club and recalls his mother being scared when he practiced his swings at home. Later he moved up to caddy master and then went off to Alabama A&M, where he earned a degree in mechanical arts. Along the way, he and five other black students started an unofficial college golf team, which won the Southern Conference college golf championship on its first outing.
After a military stint, Walker returned to Huntsville to become the assistant pro at the Redstone Arsenal Country Club, a military country club.
In 1971, he applied for the court-ordered black pro position at South Atlanta's John A. White course when it was still a municipal course. But, he says, "I looked at the bare dirt" course and hightailed it back to Alabama.
There, club management informed him that "I'd never become head pro in Alabama, that there weren't more than about two or three black pros in the world then, and they let me know that Atlanta [might be progress after all]," he says.
In 1978, the John A. White course was threatened with closure. But, Mr. Walker says, "I saw my chance to work with some black inner-city kids and they left me five holes, a job, and the clubhouse."
On a city budget of less than $150,000, this is not a toney country club operation. But neither is the program just a rec-center hangout. Walker's students are a mix of minorities including children bused in from housing projects and those of Atlanta's wealthy black professional neighborhoods.
The children mow the greens, change the cups, repair equipment, and talk golf in the old stone clubhouse. Walker hoards donated range balls, clubs, and golf shoes. One pair of slightly used alligator wingtip cleats awaits the player whose dedication - and feet - grow enough to fit them, he says.
Walker has dreams of building the course back to its original size to make it a fully operational junior country club in which the children run the pro shop, learning retailing and repair, and caddy for senior citizens.
"It's easy for me to teach minority kids golf, but its hard for me to find a place for them to play," says Walker.
While his course is unique, he says, five holes alone do not permit his students to play a whole game of golf. This is the equivalent, he says, of asking Little Leaguers to play baseball without all four bases. And because he doesn't have the resources to manicure the course to the "storybook" perfection of championship courses, his students cannot compete very well with those privileged to practice on good courses.
Even if minority parents could afford to join the finest private courses, he says, blacks are not permitted those memberships.
"Some of my kids can hit the ball as well as anyone, but they lose it around the greens," he explains. "These kids from this old rough tall grass don't have the finesse.... It takes them two or three putts."
Meanwhile, he explains, minorities are similarly aced out of the best junior PGA tournaments. They cannot get onto PGA courses in order to play the games they need to establish a handicap that, in turn, is the ticket to play in PGA junior tournaments where scouts from the best college teams often recruit.
Still, more than 50 junior golfers from his program have participated in National Junior Golf tournaments around the country. And 16 of Walker's students - including his daughter - have won Atlanta Junior Golf Association college scholarships. Olen Grant, a former graduate of Walker's program and top golfer at the University of Kentucky, is now trying to qualify for the PGA tour.
But molding champions is not Walker's main goal. Rather, he says, it is exposing inner-city kids to a sport that may be more useful to them in the long run than basketball, football, or baseball. The sport may not have the glitter and speed of other sports, nor the black role models, Walker agrees. But, he says, it is relaxing and a sport of great independence.
"You make your own decisions. If the ball is in a bad position, you'll be the one to select the club and get it out of there. And it feels good to be in a big pretty field in the open and not all closed up" in a gym or in a football uniform, he explains.
He says "project kids" are particularly suited to the game. They play well because they have no fear, he says. "They don't tiptoe around" making decisions.
The value of golf skills cannot be underestimated as a corporate tool, either, insists Tina White, executive director of the Calvin Peete Golf Foundation. "Black executives will tell you it makes a difference in a career," she says. "You can't say 'Come on, boss, let's go play football.' But you can do it with golf. You get to talk intimately between holes."