By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
Coach Leonard Smoot has fond memories of his Miles Golden Bears golf team winning the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship tournament two years ago.
“It was very meaningful for the golf team to accomplish that, being that we had never won it in the history of the PGA WORKS,” Smoot said. “Two, it was the first national championship that the school has ever had of any kind.”
Smoot and Miles will bid for another PGA WORKS title next week as the tournament that’s billed as the most culturally significant championship in collegiate golf, featuring matches among Division I Men’s, Division II Men’s and Women’s teams, will be played Monday through Wednesday, May 8-10.
Each playing division will compete alternately at Shoal Creek Club in Shelby County and Bent Brook Golf Course in Bessemer. Golf Channel will air the competition from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
“We’re looking good,” Smoot said of his Division II Golden Bears. “I think we’ve got a chance of winning. There are several great teams that are competing this year that I think will have an opportunity. It’s going to be a very competitive time here in Birmingham with our HBCUs competing against each other.”
Miles enters PGAWorks coming off a banner year in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) with a number of honors including the 2023 SIAC Player of the Year, Phillip Darst; the SIAC Freshman of the Year, Jerris Baker; and Coach of the Year, Smoot, the sixth time he’s won that in the past eight years.
Miles is one of three historically Black colleges and universities in the field of the event. The golf teams from Alabama A&M and Alabama State universities will compete in the Division I Men’s category. Spectator admission to the competition is free.
Scooter Clark is the director of the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship. His first experience with the event was as a senior at Paint Branch High in Burtonsville, Maryland. He competed in the high school division, which makes its return this year with 16 boys and 10 girls from across the country.
“I remember being so impressed by the team atmosphere, seeing all the team colors, the golf bags and then being able to see really the team camaraderie and the closeness of everybody that was a part of it,” Clark recalled of that first PGA WORKS tourney, then known as the National Minority Collegiate Championship at Highland Park Golf Course in Cleveland, Ohio.
Clark would go on to play in the college tournament for Southern University and then the University of Maryland. He went on to coach in the tourney, leading the Bethune-Cookman program.
Clark, described the championships in the Birmingham metro area as transformational. Perhaps no greater transformation can be found than the involvement of Shoal Creek.
The private golf club was at the center of a firestorm prior to the 1990 PGA Championship when founder Hall Thompson said it would not be pressured to accept African-American members. Civil rights groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, threatened to protest the event.
The PGA considered moving the tournament from Shoal Creek before a compromise was reached. Local insurance executive Louis J. Willie was invited to become an honorary member.
Today Shoal Creek, which counts former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among its members, is an enthusiastic partner in the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship. The club announced a goal of raising $2 million for the PGA WORKS endowment with half those funds being for HBCUs in Alabama and the other half going to the broader endowment.
“This club is a very welcoming and inclusive club and group of people,” Clark said. “That is evidenced by their commitment to supporting our HBCU programs. We’re 30-plus years removed from that (1990 PGA Championship) and I think the community of Birmingham has moved well beyond that.”
But PGA WORKS is not only an event in which golfers navigate courses in pursuit of championships. It is also – if not more – about equipping members of HBCUs with the tools to navigate a life that could include a career in the Professional Golfers Association.
The event grew out of a meeting in November 1986, following the Jackson State University Golf Tournament. The founders’ goal was to elevate the game at minority colleges and universities by providing student-athletes with the opportunity to compete on a championship stage during an era when they were excluded from playing in many collegiate golf events.
The inaugural Championship was played in the spring of 1987 at Highland Park Golf Course in Cleveland. Since 1998, PGA Golf Club hosted the Championship, and in 2006 the PGA of America was granted complete ownership and management of the Championship by the National Minority College Golf Scholarship Fund.
In 2019, PGA REACH, the 501(c)(3) foundation of the PGA of America, assumed ownership of the Championship from the PGA of America.
A career expo was added to the event in 1990. Other features added to benefit participating players include:
- Beyond The Green event, which is a career exploration event.
- Fellowships, one-year paid immersions into PGA sections. Young people are able to work and gain experience working for one the 41 PGA sections, working tournament operations, marketing, public relations and a variety of other roles.
- PGA WORKS scholarships, which are awarded to professional golf management students. These are diverse students who attend participating universities.
“It’s all around really creating this more inclusive workforce in our $84 billion industry,” Clark said. “The PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship is really a platform for us to be able to speak to our student-athletes. Obviously, they’re playing in a championship, but we’re also able to build the awareness of the opportunities that exist within golf.”
Notable former PGA WORKS participants include former Bethune-Cookman golfer Maulana Dotch, the only African-American female general manager of a golf course; former University of Louisville golfer Doug Smith II, a broadcaster on Golf Channel; Kennie Sims, senior director of PGA REACH Impact; former South Carolina State golfer Tiana Jones, a 5-time women’s medalist who is now the head men’s and women’s coach at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; and former Tennessee State golfer Sean Foley, a renowned golf instructor whose former clients include Tiger Woods.
The PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship tournament will be played Monday through Wednesday, May 8-10. Information is available at https://pgaworkscollegiate.org/, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PGAWORKS, on Twitter @PGAWORKS and on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/pgaworkscollegiate/ or by calling Jared Minski of Mastro Communications at (732) 546-4325.