'This is huge': Top Black pro, amateurs say golf needs more barrier-breakers like Shippen

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Shasta Averyhardt started playing golf at around age 7, quickly began working with an instructor, and eventually earned a scholarship to play at Jackson State, a historically Black university in Mississippi.

She also understands all the barriers that exist, and all the opportunities that often don't, for Black golfers. She never played in an American Junior Golf Association tournament, because her family couldn't afford it, with all the entry fees and travel costs.

Averyhardt, 35, of Flint, who played on the LPGA Tour in 2011 and 2013, is one of 12 women and 20 men who are competing in the inaugural John Shippen tournament at Detroit Golf Club, playing for exemptions into LPGA Tour and PGA Tour events. The women's winning two-player team will earn a spot in next month's Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Midland, and the men's individual winner will get an exemption into this week's Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit.

Shasta Averyhardt will compete in The John Shippen at Detroit Golf Club.

The 36-hole tournament, created to open up opportunities for Black professional and amateur golfers, is Sunday and Monday. It's the first of its kind on the LPGA and PGA tours.

"There are two current (Black) women on the LPGA Tour right now, and there are about five to seven women on the LPGA Symetra (development) Tour," Averyhardt said. "There's definitely a bigger number of us out there. Having an opportunity like this, it doesn't happen very often.

"We know how to play golf, we have instruction, we have the experience. It's just nice to be able to play at the highest level, at Detroit Golf Club a couple days before the PGA Tour comes in."

The John Shippen, named after the nation's first Black golf professional, also will award an exemption into the LPGA Tour's Cognizant Founders Cup in October. The four players who make up the second- and third-place teams in the Shippen will participate in a three-hole shootout after Monday's final round of play, the winning individual earning that exemption.

Averyhardt is one of four players with Michigan ties to receive invitations to the Shippen, along with recent Michigan State golfers Andrew Walker (Battle Creek), 22, and Troy Taylor II (Columbus, Ohio), 21, and Wayne State alumnus Joseph Hooks, 28.

The fields feature 21 professionals and 11 amateurs, ranging from ages 16 to 35. A committee was created by marketing firm Intersport and the Woods and Watts Effect, to target the best candidates to play. Rocket Companies paid all player expenses, including travel, lodging and food, to remove barriers.

"It's awesome. There's nothing to describe it other than, it's awesome," said Walker, a three-time Mr. Michigan Golf out of Battle Creek Lakeview, where for all four years he was the only Black player on his high school team, and one of the few in his entire southwest region of the state. He has status on the Mackenzie Tour (PGA Tour Canada), which restarts play in late July after a lengthy COVID-19 shutdown. "Our game definitely needs this. ... Black people historically have had a very tough time getting access to the game.

"This definitely shows some of the steps that need to be taken. It's not as simple as young Black kids saying, 'Hey, I want to play golf.' There are a lot of barriers."

Andrew Walker recently completed his career at Michigan State, and will try this week for a spot in the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

The game of golf is a lot more inclusive than it was in its early days in America; the game has major racist roots. Even at the host club for the Shippen, before the PGA Tour came to town, the most prestigious event held there was the Horton Smith Invitational, named after the former Masters champion, club pro and PGA president who pushed for the exclusion of Blacks on the PGA Tour. The club stripped his name off the invitational (it's now the Michigan Medal Play), and apparently removed his picture from the clubhouse.

A major spike in Blacks playing the game is attributed to the Tiger Woods effect in the late 1990s. Still, there are just four current players on the PGA Tour who are Black — two, Harold Varner III and Cameron Champ, who will play in the Rocket Mortgage Classic — and fewer than 1% of PGA of America club pros are Black.

As part of The John Shippen, officials are hosting a business summit, virtual this year, for upcoming or recent high school and college graduates who are interested in getting into the $84-billion golf industry.

That Detroit is the first place on the PGA Tour or LPGA Tour to offer such an opportunity isn't an accident. Detroit is the Blackest city in the nation, and one of the poorest. Other PGA Tour tournaments have diversity-focused initiatives, including Los Angeles' Genesis Invitational, the Woods-hosted event that every year hands out the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption. This year, Woods gave it to Flint's Willie Mack III, a regular on the diversity-promoting Advocates Professional Golf Association, founded in 2008.

Mack was planning to participate in the Shippen this week, but Rocket Mortgage Classic officials instead gave him one of its four sponsor's exemptions.

"This is huge," said Taylor, Mr. Ohio Golf his senior year of high school who went into golf rather than the family business — his dad played basketball at Ohio State in the 1980s. "You don't see too many African-Americans out on the Tour, and I don't think it's a skill-level point. It's having the right chance, the right opportunity. African-American golfers, we don't get too many of those opportunities as others.

"I was hoping to be a part of this."

Troy Taylor is one of two Michigan State golfers teeing it up in The John Shippen.

Walker and Taylor consider themselves fortunate. They got into the game at a young age and didn't experience many of the roadblocks others have. Mack and Averyhardt, friends bound by their age and Flint connection, had more struggles. Mack, whose story has been well-told this year, has been grinding on the mini-tours for years, was homeless for more than a year, and has told stories of having to borrow $20 here and $20 there from his dad just to eat McDonald's. Averyhardt said she relied heavily on parents Greg Averyhardt and Maria Espinoza, particularly in college, for food and rent, and still relies on them. "I'll be in debt to them forever," she said.

The cost of competitive golf goes beyond just the best equipment, teachers and access to courses. It's access to tournaments, too, and that can be expensive. Often on the mini-tours, you need to win or finish runner-up to make any profit, after factoring in entry fees. Fees for a pre-qualifier on the PGA Tour can run $200. If you advance out of that, you head to the Monday qualifier, which can cost up to $400. If you advance out of that, you're in that week's PGA Tour tournament, where you then need to make the cut just to earn a paycheck that week.

Golf's an expensive sport, and there are White professional golfers who struggle to pay the bills, too. A video of Justin Thomas went viral earlier this year when he slipped a struggling player a check to put toward golf endeavors. This week, a Korn Ferry Tour player talked to media about how he doesn't have the money for Q School this fall. But Averyhardt points to the wealth gap in America, when making the case for the importance of events and opportunities for Black golfers, like the Shippen. According to Survey of Consumer Finances, in 2019, the median White household income was between seven and eight times greater than Black households, and the gap has grown wider amid the pandemic.

"I know a lot of people say, 'Well, other ethnicities struggle financially,' but if you dive deeper into the history of our country ... there's a huge wealth gap," said Averyhardt, who in 2010 became just the fourth Black member of the LPGA Tour, and now plays on the Symetra Tour. "Some people get it, some people won't.

"I really love that they created this event."

We're running a new-subscriber special. Support local journalism, and subscribe here.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984