Senior Otis Ferguson IV had tried for years to launch a golf team at Howard University. He printed flyers, held interest meetings with prospective team members and even reached out to a nonprofit that offered to provide golf equipment. Yet, the team never got off the ground.
But that is about to change, thanks to Ferguson’s encounter at Howard earlier this year with NBA superstar Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who, like Ferguson, is an avid golfer. In January, Howard hosted a screening of Emanuel, a documentary about the 2015 massacre of nine black worshipers by a white supremacist at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Curry was executive producer of the film, and afterward, he was the star of a panel discussion about its creation. Ferguson made it his business to be there.
“I told my friends that I am about to go meet Steph Curry real quick,” Ferguson recalled in an interview. And when he did, Ferguson told Curry about his love of golf and his quest to form a team at Howard. He also suggested, “Let’s play golf.”
His words caught Curry’s ear, even though they did not play golf right away. The two stayed in touch by email, and within months, Curry made it known that he wanted to sponsor a golf team at Howard, allowing the university to compete at the intercollegiate level for the first time in decades.
The promise was made official Monday as Curry returned to Washington to announce his commitment to fund the men’s and women’s golf teams for six years. In remarks made at the historic Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington, Curry credited Ferguson for pursuing his dream and having the gumption to talk to him about it back in January.
“The idea around recreating Howard’s golf team and turning it into a Division I program for men and women was born on that specific night,” Curry said. “Now, 7½ or eight months later, we’re here.”
Kery Davis, Howard’s athletic director, called Curry’s donation “one of the most generous gifts in the history of Howard University.” Officials did not reveal the size of Curry’s donation, although it is estimated to be worth several million dollars. The money will be used to hire a coach, cover the cost of recruiting and fund three, or perhaps four, full scholarships for the men’s and women’s teams that will begin playing in the 2020-21 school year.
Besides the cash donation from Curry to be paid out over six years, the university will receive clubs and equipment from golf manufacturer and Curry partner Callaway Golf. The team also will receive shoes and other gear from Under Armour, another Curry partner that already supplies the university’s other athletic teams.
University officials cheered the gift as a godsend, although it comes with significant obligations for a university that has struggled to raise money in the past despite its storied reputation. “This program will expose the campus to a game with numerous benefits,” said Howard president Wayne A.I. Frederick.
Curry’s donation leaves Howard on the hook to raise as much as $8 million to endow the golf program once the initial gift is expended. Raising that kind of money to fund what some students and alumni might view as a niche athletic team could prove challenging for Howard, which has suffered through serious financial problems in recent years.
Frederick, however, said re-establishing the team is consistent with the university’s strategic mission because it expands “opportunities for student athletes … in areas where they are underrepresented.”
Beyond the financial obligation that comes with fielding a golf team, the university also faces the hurdle of recruiting competitive golfers. That challenge has led many of the shrinking number of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that still have golf teams to recruit many white golfers, or golfers from foreign countries.
The dearth of black golfers is evident at HBCUs across the country. The five-time repeat champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which is made up mostly of HBCUs, is Augusta University, a predominantly white institution in Georgia. Many of the other schools in the MEAC, in which Howard competes in many sports, have majority-white golf teams.
Golf coaches and others offer a range of explanations for the shortage of competitive black golfers. There are the ever-present problems of economics and access to challenging golf courses and good equipment. While many African Americans and other minorities play golf recreationally, there is a steep drop-off in participation at the more competitive levels.
Curry, who is reportedly a near-scratch golfer, began playing the game with his father when he was 10 years old, and he also played three years on his high school team. He said the cost of playing top-flight golf remains a barrier for many black players. He also noted the small number of black role models in the game and on the PGA Tour.
“The game of golf in general, and just the business of golf, is obviously predicated on the middle-aged white man who has historically owned the game,” Curry said. “I think all around the country there is work being done … to make golf more affordable, more fun, more approachable.”
Curry said he hopes his gift to Howard proves to be a step in the right direction. In the past, the university had a Division II team, but officials said it was disbanded in the 1970s. Officials also said the new men’s and women’s teams mark the first time Howard will have a Division I golf program.
With the teams not expected to play before the 2020-21 school year, Ferguson, the student who made it all happen, will not get a chance to play golf for Howard. He said he is content knowing that he helped create an opportunity for the next Howard student like him who comes along with a passion for golf.
But Ferguson did get a chance to play with Curry on Monday, joining a foursome in the sweltering Washington heat that also included Frederick, the university president, and Chip Brewer, CEO of Callaway Golf.
“This came from Otis being passionate about the game, wanting an opportunity,” Curry said. “And now he will leave a forever legacy in terms of being a part of starting Howard’s golf team.”