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A late convert to golf, Fred Perpall is now president of the USGA

He’s the first Black person to lead the sport’s governing body in the U.S.

A latecomer to the game of golf – he started playing only about a decade ago – Fred Perpall, 48, was elected president of the United States Golf Association on Saturday, the first Black man to lead the organization in its 129-year history.

Perpall, who lives in Dallas, is CEO of The Beck Group, a commercial architecture and construction business and also a member of the board of directors of FedEx. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Texas at Arlington. In college, he played basketball and ran track and was part of the Bahamian national basketball team.

Perpall spoke with Andscape about the arc of his life, his passion for the game and the potential it has to change lives for the better.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a little bit about your background. Where are you from and what did you want to be when you grew up?

I was born and raised in Nassau, Bahamas, which is only 60 miles off the coast of West Palm Beach. Growing up in the Bahamas in the ’70s and ’80s, all of our television, all of our shopping, our TV channels, were basically the same as South Floridians.

At 12 years old, I decided I wanted to be an architect, mostly because I went to work one summer for my uncle who was a construction worker. I decided construction wasn’t for me, in the summer heat, but I did like how the architect swooped in and swooped out and seemed to boss everyone around. So I’ve had the unbelievable gift of knowing exactly what I wanted to be most of my adult life. At 15 years old, I enrolled in architecture school. By the time I was 22, I had a master’s degree in architecture, and I started my career working in Dallas as an architect.

You’re kind of a Texas guy at this point, no?

Yeah. I went to University of Texas at Arlington. I got both my bachelor’s and master’s degree there, hence my Texas ‘sort of’ roots. Actually, it’s funny because I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in Texas and all my buddies back home are so proud, they’re like, ‘We know you’re happy to be the first black president of the USGA, but you’re also the first Texan to be president of the USGA!’

Who were your early role models?

I always was fascinated with men of color that are demonstrating to us what we could be in life. I had an uncle, my mother’s brother, who was a president of a Swiss bank and lived in Geneva, Switzerland. And he would come home in finely tailored suits, speaking six languages, driving really nice cars … and I always thought he looked really good, always well dressed, always well groomed.

This uncle was very polished and that lit a spark in me. And then there’s one of my fellow countrymen, Sidney Poitier. When I was in high school, I got to watch him speak, this dark-skinned man with grace and pride. I mean, you can see no ego in him, just the self-confidence to hold your head high and be really proud of where you come from.

How did you get connected to the game initially?

I didn’t grow up playing golf. Just about a little bit over 10 years ago, I joined a country club [in Dallas]. I joined this club more for social reasons, but every day I’d go up to the club to get a drink after work and I’d see all the guys were coming in from the golf course having so much fun. So, I decided to hire a coach and get serious about golf.

And in the midst of my first two years while learning to play golf, we got an assignment from AT&T, who’s one of our big clients, to build a golf club to host the [PGA Tour’s] Byron Nelson Classic tournament. And really that’s where the rabbit hole of golf opened up for me and I started thinking about golf every minute.

As an architect, it was very easy for me to understand that the language of golf architects is the language of all design. And I, I really fell head over heels. By 2016, I probably was spending all my free time learning as much as I could about golf course architecture, golf course construction, and then also how to play golf. For me it’s been a journey and it’s still a passion.

You’ve had a rapid ascent from getting into the game to being an integral part of an organization that helps govern the game.

One thing I think about is leaning into your passion, right? I think when we live our life purely, when we just lean into something because we love it, it actually becomes very attractive to us. But it also attracts people to us. And there’s a purity. This is why I love amateur golf, because ‘amateur,’ the whole Latin derivative of the word is love, right? I just love golf.

What does your election as president say about the game and the country?

Today we have a country that I think is on the move towards more inclusion, more relatability, and more transparency. And the USGA is just reflecting that. It’s a reflection of our collective values and our collective thought about what the game could be. And I didn’t have to take any shortcuts. Even though my rise was quick, I went through all the steps. And that doesn’t happen unless the people who are mentoring you are intentional about the opportunities you have received. And so, I hope today people see a USGA that has leaned in to golf and to golfers that are transforming themselves in terms of how we communicate. I think we’re spending a lot of time thinking about the way we want to be good for the game. And, and for us that means a lot more transparency and a lot more relatability.

How do you balance the preservation of traditions with the desire, and maybe even the necessity, for change?

We have to know that our future champions may join the game through Topgolf as likely as they would join the game as a 5-year-old at a country club. And we have to have more pathways into the traditional game that comes from nontraditional backgrounds. And that means we need to meet people where they are, and then groom and build them on a journey to where they could go, to show them what life could be like for them if they got on this journey of golf. That’s what people did for me in the game, and that’s what people did for me in my life.

The USGA is heavily influenced by some old private clubs that are very homogenous in their membership. What should The USGA be doing to promote diversity and inclusion? And are you having to drag some people kicking and screaming?

I know of no club where we conduct a [USGA-sanctioned] championship that is not interested in being more diverse. The homogeny and lack of racial inclusion that we see in clubs today are a reflection of what our country has been.

And let’s say gender inclusion too.

No question. And the USGA, as you know, will not conduct championships at clubs that are biased or have a policy against gender or racial diversity. But we’re not where we should be. And I think part of that is building the pathways so that the clubs feel like they have the right candidates and that they haven’t had to make sacrifices in terms of what they value. We all will have a part to play in this new American inclusion. I think we are trying to inspire people. I believe most of us at the USGA believe we want to set the standard and we want to inspire people into the causes that are right. We want to showcase the right behavior.

And when we think about what the game can be and why we need to open the game up for more people, it’s because golf is the best facility I know of where people can gain intimacy and perspective with each other irrespective of backgrounds. Golf is just a proxy for how we want to live our life. I feel like my story is unique, but I also feel like there are a lot of other people who’ve had stories like this because of golf.

Inclusion can sometimes lead to assimilation. How do you guard against that?

I believe we can be proud Americans and proud African Americans. I believe we can bring our neighborhood with us and we can aspire to the most elegant and elite life.

What would you like your legacy to be?

I hope people will think that I was kind and I was generous. And even though I have a big voice and I’m a big man with a big personality, I hope people will remember me for being someone that was humble and deeply interested in other people’s success. I think more about ancestry, you know? About changing the outcomes for people who will never know I existed. I want to be a great ancestor much more than I want to have a great legacy.

Last question: Who would fill out your dream foursome?

Honestly, it would include Tiger Woods, because my real spark of interest in the game started by watching him as a man that looked like me just achieve extreme excellence. John F. Kennedy. He was a passionate golfer and a passionate leader. And Sidney Poitier was a passionate golfer. And he’s probably the most famous man ever from the Bahamas.

Michael Williams is a writer, radio host and television commentator based in Washington, D.C. He covers politics for Voice of America and is a member of the USGA Golf Journal editorial board. He met the Dalai Lama and Mike Tyson in the same year. He made his first hole in one in April of last year.