‘You just can’t make that up’: How an idea to lift up minority golf became something much bigger
You just can’t make that up.
Adrian Stills says those six words often to explain things that, well, he just can’t explain.
Like how the 63-year-old former PGA Tour player now manages and serves as director of golf at Osceola Municipal in Pensacola, the same nearly-century-old facility where Stills learned the game as a Black kid growing up along Florida’s Gulf Coast in the 1960s.
Or how Stills, having qualified for the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, played a practice round with buddy Lee Janzen, during which Janzen predicted he was going to win that week – and then did.
Or how Stills and a Los Angeles-based executive named Ken Bentley, connected by a brother-in-law (Bentley’s wife’s sister is married to Stills’ wife’s brother), teamed up more than a decade ago to create the Advocates Pro Golf Association, a non-profit organization that aims to bring greater diversity to golf through its series of professional tournaments known as the APGA Tour, player development and mentoring programs, and inner-city outreach.
“It’s this game,” says Stills, also the APGA’s director of player development. “It all happens because of this game.”
‘Let’s re-create it’
Bentley never could have envisioned himself being involved with golf, let alone serving as CEO of the APGA and sitting on the board of Tiger Woods’ TGR Foundation. He was a tennis player – a standout one at that – playing collegiately at UC Irvine and later recreationally in the professional world. But when his colleagues at Nestle USA, where Bentley worked for 31 years before retiring as the company’s vice president in 2014, started playing less tennis and more golf, Bentley figured he’d better grab a club and take some lessons. His first one went terrible, and he almost gave up immediately.
That second lesson, though?
“I hit one good shot and fell in love,” Bentley said.
Bentley was hooked, and he quickly found himself organizing golf trips for him and a couple dozen of his buddies. A philanthropist at his core, Bentley bought a set of golf clubs before one such outing and raffled off the clubs for charity at $50 per ticket. The seed had been planted; what started small quickly grew, and Bentley soon sought non-profit status for the growing group. In 2006, Advocates USA officially became a 501(c)(3) organization.
That’s where Stills comes in.
A couple of years later, in 2008, Bentley invited Stills to an Advocates gathering at Rio Secco Golf Club in Las Vegas. Back then the outings were headlined by a two-person scramble tournament, but the itinerary that week also included a golf clinic for local youth conducted by Stills.
Stills’ roots in golf run deeper than Bentley’s. Stills was 10 years old when his father, Roy Sr., first dropped him off at Osceola, which at the time didn’t have a range. So, with just 50 or so shag balls at his disposal, Stills found a spot underneath an oak tree and hit shot after shot until he ran out of balls, then scooped them all up and repeated the process. He did that most days until he graduated from Pensacola Catholic High School and received a golf scholarship to play for South Carolina State, an NAIA school where he was a two-time All-American.
As a pro, Stills amassed 31 wins on the mini-tours, played in two U.S. Opens and spent one season on the PGA Tour, in 1986. Of course, he’s most famous for how he earned his Tour card. Stills, 28 years old at the time, survived a six-for-five playoff at the Tour’s six-round Qualifying Tournament to earn his place in the big leagues that next year alongside Black golf legends Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe. He went on to make 11 cuts in 23 starts, losing his card, and then took four more cracks at Q-School before getting a job as a teaching pro at Grand Cypress Golf Club in Orlando, Florida.
For 25 years, Stills remained the last Black golfer to advance through Q-School until Joseph Bramlett broke that streak in 2010, two years before the qualifying tournament shuttered its direct path to the PGA Tour. (Woods bypassed Q-School altogether in 1996 to earn his card.)
Back in Las Vegas, and a couple of years before Bramlett’s breakthrough, Stills was asked by Bentley why there weren’t more minorities, particularly Black players, competing at pro golf’s highest levels, especially since golf’s most dominant player of the past decade was one himself. While Stills attributed the game’s lack of diversity to several factors, one statement particularly caught Bentley’s attention: “If we could give them a place to play,” Stills said, “we could get some guys on Tour.”
Stills went on to explain how the United Golf Association, a professional golf league formed during the era of racial segregation, gave Black golfers a tour of their own while the PGA of America prevented them from competing in its events via its “Caucasian-only clause,” which wasn’t repealed until 1961. The UGA, also known affectionately as the “Chitlin Circuit,” was home to the likes of Lee Elder, Pete Brown and Charlie Sifford, the latter of whom won six National Negro Opens on the tour before going on to become the first Black golfer to join the PGA Tour, in 1961.
Bentley, well aware of the UGA after having recently watched a documentary titled, “Uneven Fairways: The Story of the Negro Leagues of Golf,” then looked Stills in the eye and said: “Let’s re-create it.”
“We got to work quick,” said Bentley, who within the year helped Stills turn an idea into reality.
Then the APGA was born.
‘We’ve got something here’
A tour played on pitted fairways and rock-strewn greens, from Cleveland to Charleston. While there was little money and little fanfare, there was major talent. – Samuel L. Jackson in “Uneven Fairways.”
Back in the 1950s, Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, Florida, served as a safe haven for Black golfers. In fact, for years the Willie Black design was the only course in the area that wasn’t segregated. Sifford honed his game there. So, too, did other athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. That history is what made the site, though far from being in pristine condition, an ideal launching point for the APGA's inaugural three-event season in 2010.
“It was a rough golf course … but we played what the guys back then would’ve played,” said Doug Smith, who competed in that first tournament at Rogers and plays at least one APGA event a year. “That was kind of the premise: We’re going to play a tour and pay respects to what guys used to do back in the day and try to revive Black golf.”
To bolster the special occasion, Stills and Bentley – with help from Dr. Michael Cooper, the tour’s director of tournament operations, and Kennie Sims, a PGA professional – organized the APGA Tour’s debut event in conjunction with National Black Golf Hall of Fame weekend. Peete and Jim Dent were among those in attendance. Tampa Bay Buccaneers legend Derrick Brooks spoke at the ceremony.
And the play? “The play was amazing,” Stills said.
More than 40 players teed it up (“I had never seen that many good Black players at one time,” Bentley recalled), and the competition culminated in a three-man playoff, with George Bradford earning the $4,000 first-place prize by chipping in for eagle on Rogers’ par-5 opening hole to beat Don Wright and Tim O’Neal, who had just lost his card after a few seasons on what is now known as the Korn Ferry Tour.
“We had like 50 carts going down that fairway [following the playoff],” Stills said. “The place was crazy. You could just feel the energy. That first event just charged everybody up. Right away, we said, ‘All right, we’ve got something here.’”
The APGA Tour’s ground-breaking season featured $40,000 in total prize money, secured by Bentley via donations from Nestle and Farmers Insurance. Vincent Johnson won the inaugural Adrian Stills Award, given to the tour’s player of the year, and received $5,000 to chase his Q-School dreams. Before the tour’s finale in Los Angeles, a group of about 90 local youth, from kids to young adults and most with no prior relationship with the game, were invited out to Chester Washington Golf Course, where for three hours they received golf instruction from players while also taking part in career and health and wellness seminars.
Just like that, the APGA was off and running.
‘A big leap’
“It’s grown way past what we thought it would be,” admits Bentley, who finds it difficult to fully grasp all that the Advocates has achieved in these 11 years.
For Stills, these are more of those you-just-can’t-make-that-up moments.
Over 120 different players teed it up on the APGA Tour last year. That includes the tour’s yearly allotment of 60 members, who receive several benefits, including shockingly low $400 entry fees. Of those members, 12 are selected each year as part of the tour’s player development program, which includes access to fitted equipment and instruction from high-level coaches such as Todd Anderson and Sean Foley. Every tournament winner receives a free spot in a KFT qualifier. There’s also a college program, which was bolstered this year by the PGA Tour’s APGA Collegiate Ranking, designed to help identify the top Black college seniors each season who will receive APGA Tour membership, covered entry fees and travel costs, and exemptions into the pre-qualifying stage of KFT Q-School.
And the prize money? That initial $40,000 purse is dwarfed by this season’s $350,000 pot, which is a byproduct of the tour’s growing list of sponsors. When Lexus came on board a few years ago as the tour’s presenting sponsor, they also backed a year-long, FedExCup-style points race. This season, the Lexus Cup will award $35,000 in bonus money to the top six points leaders, including $17,500 to the Lexus Player of the Year.
As last year’s player of the year, O’Neal not only earned about $50,000 in prize money during a pandemic-shortened campaign, but he also won a year-long lease of a Lexus of his choosing.
“At the time, [that first event at Rogers Park] was just another tournament,” said O’Neal, 48, now a three-time PGA Tour Latinoamerica winner who plans on chasing a PGA Tour Champions card in a couple of years. “I had no idea what this was going to turn into. I’ve seen this tour from the start, and to see where it is now, it’s definitely a big leap.”
The APGA has certainly come a long way from those early days at Rogers Park. While the friendly confines of places like Rogers and Chester Washington helped fulfill the Advocates’ inner-city mission, they were, well, confining. Bentley said he quickly realized that when his players got their opportunities to compete in higher-profile events on Tour-caliber setups, they were often ill-prepared.
“We knew we needed to make a transition,” Stills said.
That’s when the PGA Tour stepped in. A few years after the APGA Tour’s inception, the Tour began opening doors to the APGA members at its TPC network of courses. First, they offered tee times at a discount, but now the APGA Tour is afforded three complimentary days at multiple venues. The APGA is running 10 events this season (a three-tournament Fall Series is also planned), and among those host courses are five TPC layouts and two other courses – Torrey Pines and Valhalla – that have hosted major championships.
The APGA Tour’s second event, a 27-hole competition, was contested last month at Torrey’s North Course while the Tour simultaneously held its third round of the Farmers Insurance Open on the neighboring South Course. The APGA members also got to play alongside the Tour players during the pro-am.
“It’s those kinds of experiences that the APGA Tour tries to offer the players so that they can be prepared when opportunities come their way,” said Kevin Hall, a 38-year-old former Big Ten individual champion at Ohio State who has logged more than 50 events (and three wins) on the APGA Tour and last week received a sponsor exemption to play in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Hall didn’t make the cut, but he did open in 73 at Pebble and ended up beating Phil Mickelson by a shot.
“We’re trying to give our players all the tools possible,” Stills said.
‘Keeping people fed’
While the APGA may have Black roots, Smith is upset by people who typecast it as “this Black thing.”
“It’s really a tour for the have-nots,” he says, while noting that the tour's most recent winner, Landon Lyons, is white.
Scroll through an APGA Tour leaderboard and you’ll find stories of humble beginnings and hard times. Willie Mack III, the APGA Tour’s all-time wins leader, once shared a studio apartment with two others, including a pull-out sofa with fellow APGA player Christian Heavens, one summer while playing the Florida Professional Golf Tour (Mack won that tour’s money title that season). He also lived out of his car for almost two years. Kamaiu Johnson, who like Mack is considered one of the Advocates’ brightest stars, dropped out of school in the eighth grade and experienced homelessness. Hall, who has been deaf since age 2, was lucky in that both of his parents retired to travel the country with him when he was starting out professionally, but that didn’t spare him of trying times.
There are players on the APGA who don’t have health insurance. Even more share hotel rooms and rental cars, trying to save whatever they can to keep their dreams alive. Because of the financial burden, many play outdated and ill-fitting equipment, wedges with worn-out grooves. They practice at less-than-adequate facilities. They pass up tournaments – and potential breakthroughs – when their bank accounts are low.
And sadly, when the money runs out, a lot of them give up.
“If you’re not playing on the PGA Tour, it’s expensive,” said O’Neal, who estimates it costs about $75,000 a year to play pro golf. “I had help, but there were times when I didn’t and stopped playing. But if I didn’t have help along the way, I still wouldn’t be playing right now.”
The emergence of the Advocates over the past decade has help mitigate broken dreams. It’s given players in need an affordable, competitive and rewarding place to play. In turn, it’s helped players pay rent, medical bills, other entry fees. It’s fitted players like Michael Herrera with clubs for the first time, a gesture that Herrera immediately turned into a top-10 finish at last December’s Jamaica Open and win in this season’s APGA Tour opener in San Diego. It’s played a role in connecting others with jobs in the golf industry, including Clay Myers II, a PGA professional at Irving Country Club in Texas who was recently elected the first Black member of his section in 15 years, and it hopes to do more of the same through a recent partnership with the PGA of America, which will send recruiters to APGA events.
It’s a far cry from many of today’s other mini-tours, which only seem concerned with turning a profit.
“The Advocates is putting food on people’s table; it’s keeping people fed,” said Smith, who quit full-time professional golf a few years ago to take a job with True Spec, where he currently works as director of mobile sales and operations. “Unfortunately, a lot of people missed the opportunity that the tour can now bring because we all fell out of the game so early. Guys get older, run out of money. There’s a lot of players that would’ve really benefitted from where Advocates is now. The purses are bigger, the competition is better, the courses are better.
“It’s now kind of the tour that we all hoped it’d be.”
Added Bentley: “I’ve had a number of guys come up to me and say, ‘If it wasn’t for you guys, I would’ve given up golf, but now I can pursue my dream.’ I’m most proud of that.”
It’s those conversations that keep Bentley striving for more.
Some 13 years after Bentley and Stills’ conversation in the desert, golf still lacks significant diversity. At the introductory level, the game remains too expensive and too exclusionary, especially for young and underprivileged minorities, and the ones that end up pursuing golf often were afforded free or reduced rounds and lessons to get started. It also doesn’t help that the PGA of America has over 29,000 club professionals, and “less than half a percent of them are Black,” Smith says. “I think there’s a problem there.”
“If we could get more teaching pros that look like the kids in these communities,” Bentley adds, “it’ll fire the kids up to play.”
The issue of diversity also very much persists at the competitive level. You can count by hand the number of Black players who play Division I golf – and not at an HBCU, where inequities keep those programs away from the college-golf spotlight. On the PGA Tour, it’s even worse: there are just four Black members, including Woods. Two of them, Bramlett and Harold Varner III, have competed in APGA events, yet Bentley’s tour still has yet to see a full-time member go on to earn his PGA Tour card.
It’s certainly not for a lack of talent. O’Neal came close to the big leagues on a few occasions. Anderson, who teaches Mack, has said many times that his 32-year-old pupil has the game to win on Tour. People are high on Johnson’s prospects, as well.
Hall agrees, but it’s not just those three; Hall challenges anybody to come out and see for themselves at the APGA Tour’s next tournament, this weekend at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
“They would be amazed,” Hall said. “You’ll see guys that can bomb it with the best of them (World Long Drive champion Maurice Allen is in the field), players that can control their golf balls and players that have great short games. There are players right now on the APGA that can go out and play on the PGA Tour.”
Added Smith, who also co-hosts NBC Sports' "Beyond the Fairway" Podcastwith fellow APGA player Will Lowery: “It’s disappointing when you have people with their Twitter fingers who think this is just a minority tour, or just some affirmative action-type tour. It’s not. This is a real tour.”
Its players just need more opportunities to shine on the big stage. Over the years, the tour has helped several players garner PGA Tour exemptions, though they’ve mostly been one-offs. Back in 2017, when Hall was invited to play in the Genesis Invitational via the Sifford Memorial Exemption, he was given just about a week’s notice and had to scramble from snowy Ohio to sunny Florida in an attempt to get ready. He missed the cut and had to wait four years for his next invite.
“My hope is that there can be something long-term to these exemptions,” Bentley says, “so that it’s not just a one-shot thing but rather a springboard to propel these guys forward.”
That’s the APGA’s next goal, and one Bentley and Co. have already begun to make inroads on, though slowly. In the wake of George Floyd’s death last summer, the country’s racial-justice movement has added some wind to the APGA’s sails, but the big corporate sponsors have still only trickled in. One sponsor that has stepped up to the plate has been Farmers, an Advocates supporter since Day 1.
Last year during the APGA’s debut at Torrey Pines, Mack and Johnson were doing interviews when Farmers’ CEO Jeff Dailey stopped by to listen. He stayed for all 28 minutes, listening to their inspiring stories, and when they were done, Dailey couldn’t have been more impressed.
“I want to sponsor those two guys,” Dailey immediately told Bentley and Stills.
By June, Johnson and Mack had signed multi-year deals to become Farmers ambassadors. Then last month, Johnson received a spot to compete in the Farmers Insurance Open, although his PGA Tour debut was over before it started after he contracted COVID-19 and had to withdraw. Mack was selected to replace his buddy in the field and with less than two days to prepare – and swinging what turned out to be a cracked driver – missed the cut.
Mack will get another chance this week at Riviera as the latest Sifford invitee. Johnson, who has since inked deals with Titleist and Cisco, was offered three more chances to compete this season on Tour – last week at Pebble, in a few weeks at Honda and one more that Johnson couldn’t announce yet.
“Then what?” Smith asks. “Willie Mack should’ve won on Tour by now, yet he’s 32 and getting his first chance. What happens when Willie Mack gets seven exemptions? Think he might learn some s---? … I hope that the Advocates continues to create relationships with companies that can change peoples’ lives. I want this tour to bring diversity to this game. But I also want companies to partner with them who aren’t afraid to associate with Black people, especially in the game of golf.
“It’s time to get over s---, and it’s time to make golf look like America.”