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APGA Tour aims to fulfill Black golfers’ PGA dreams

Tour’s plan for bringing diversity to the sport: Provide its players ‘the tools to be successful’


After calculating the distance to the flag on the 18th hole, Marcus Byrd felt confidence. He had a two-stroke lead and a nearly 300-yard tee shot had him perfectly positioned in the middle of the fairway. As he glimpsed at the horseshoe shaped green on Valhalla Golf Club’s picturesque closing par-5, Byrd put trust in his 4-iron.

While Byrd surmises a birdie — green in regulation, with two putts — gets him the bag, he didn’t show up at the track designed by champion golfer Jack Nicklaus to play it safe. He launches a missle that takes dead aim at the flag, with the ball hitting the green and coming to rest 35 feet behind the hole.

Calmly, Byrd drains the 35-foot eagle putt to end the day with a 67 — the same closing round score golf legend Tiger Woods posted in winning the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla in 2000, and one stroke better than Rory McIlroy’s 68 during his last win in a major at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla.

“It all just felt good out there today,” Byrd said shortly after winning the event. “This is a great venue to play, and the fact that I’m making a living playing professional golf at a place like Valhalla is special.”

That living that Byrd has made in recent years has been as a player of the Advocates Professional Golf Association (APGA). The tour was formed in 2010 with the mission of bringing greater diversity to the sport and with the hopes of developing golfers — particularly African Americans — who can earn spots to play at its highest level as members of the PGA Tour.

The diversity within the APGA, when attending one of the events including the tournament at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Valhalla Golf Course, is immediately evident approaching the practice area. There’s a collection of golfers of color — an estimated 80% of them are Black — who, in addition to wearing traditional golf gear, also hit the course up repping Black-owned brands like Trap Golf, Blackballed Golf and Eastside Golf.

Getting that type of flava into the PGA — that’s a daunting task. While the number of Black, Asian and Hispanic golfers has increased to 22%, which equals the highest proportion ever recorded, Black golfers were absent in the last two majors of the year (the U.S. Open and The Open) and did not earn a spot in FedExCup Playoffs which concludes this weekend in Atlanta with the Tour Championship.

Yet, the APGA is progressing in its development of Black golfers in an era when golf, which was once considered a country club game, is now reaching wider audiences with ambassadors such as Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and rapper DJ Khaled.

“It’s the Tiger Woods effect,” said Cole Smith, the executive director of the APGA Tour. “To me, the effect was bringing awareness that golf was cool and that athleticism is appreciated in the sport.

“We now have a pipeline to try to bring more [Black golfers] to reach the [PGA] Tour,” Smith said. “It’s just going to take some time.”

Andrew Walker hits a shot during the APGA at the Valhalla tournament at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jerry Bembry for Andscape

Travis Jackson prepares to take a shot out of the bunker during the APGA at the Valhalla tournament at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jerry Bembry For Andscape

The APGA has come a long way since hosting its first tournament in 2010 at the Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, Florida. The course was opened in 1952 in a park that was the only picnic area for the city’s African American community.

“We played three events that first year, and played at municipal courses because that’s all we could afford,” Smith said. “We attracted minority players from all over the country of varying ages and varying skill sets, which was our goal.”

The tour was the brainchild of two men with different backgrounds who built a bond through golf. During one of those outings that was a mix of golf and fellowship, Ken Bentley, a former vice president with Nestle, asked former PGA Tour golfer Adrian Stills a question.

“Why aren’t there more African Americans on tour?”

Stills told Bentley that prior to qualifying for the 1986 tour by winning a series of “Q-School” events, he played events sponsored by the UGA (United Golfers Association), a tour that catered to Black golfers.

“He felt that we could start something [for minority golfers] if we were given a chance,” Bentley said. “So, I decided to see what we could do.”

Bentley sought financial support from two companies he was associated with (Farmers Insurance and Nestle) and donated his own money for the 2010 event at Rogers Park that was the first of three APGA tournaments that first year.

Steve Mona, the former CEO of the World Golf Association, showed up at a Rogers Park tournament in the early years of the APGA and was so impressed by the mission of the group that he alerted the executives of the PGA. The following January, the APGA received a $20,000 check from the PGA.

“For five or six years we got a $20,000 check in the mail with no involvement from them,” Bentley said. “That enabled us to increase the prize money and to play on better courses.”

After years of receiving checks, no questions asked, the PGA requested a meeting with an APGA executive. “I was told, ‘you guys have been getting a check for years, but we really don’t know what the APGA is about,’ ” Bentley said. “ ‘Come on in and talk to our senior executives. Either we’re going to expand our role, or we’re not going to do it anymore.’ ”

The result of that meeting: The PGA increased its financial commitment to the APGA.

“One of the missions of our player development on the PGA is to diversify our tours and get more Black and brown people out there competing at the highest level,” said Kenyatta Ramsey, PGA Tour vice president of player development. “Part of that is getting these guys ready to play at the highest level.”

And getting those golfers ready to play at the highest level meant getting them to play venues where PGA pros play, which became Ramsay’s mission eight years ago after watching his first APGA event in Miami during a fact-finding visit.

“Some of the courses they played weren’t even high amateur championship quality when it came to maintenance,” Ramsay said. “The goal was to get them on courses that had length that was challenging, and to show them this is what you’re going to see coming out of the bunkers if you reach the tour.”

Hampton University’s Joshua Siplin (right) watches his shot during the APGA at Valhalla tournament in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Jeffrey Cunningham sit in anguish on the eigth tee box at Valhalla Golf Club moments after missing a short putt on the previous green.

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The result: the incredible growth of the APGA Tour from its launch in 2010 with three events played at local municipal courses to today’s tour featuring 16 events in 2023 and stops at desirable golf venues that include Valhalla, Torrey Pines, TPC Sugarloaf and Pebble Beach.

“Coming out of college, I never really thought I’d ever have access to venues like this,” said Jordan Bohannon, an APGA tour member since graduating from North Carolina Central University in 2018. “Not unless I was playing on the PGA Tour.”

Troy Stribling could barely contain his excitement as he worked his way around the practice green at Valhalla just minutes from making his pro golf debut. Instead of being nervous, Stribling, a recent graduate of Florida A&M University, earned his APGA Tour spot as one of the top five players in the 2022-23 APGA Tour collegiate rankings.

“This is exciting, and I’m blessed to have this opportunity,” Stribling said. “I’ve known some of these guys for a while, and they’ve welcomed me and made me feel part of the family.”

Stribling hopes the APGA can boost his career just as it did for an impressive group of golfers that includes:

  • Tony Finau, currently 17th in the Official World Golf Ranking. Finau, of Tongan and Samoan descent, finished tied for fourth playing an APGA Tour event in 2013.
  • Harold Varner, a member of LIV Golf. Varner won the Australian PGA Championship in 2016 and the PIF Saudi International in 2022. Varner also finished fourth in a 2013 APGA event.
  • Kamaiu Johnson, who won both the 2022 Lexus Cup (which is awarded to the APGA Tour Player of the Year) as well as the Mastercard APGA Tour Championship event. The wins earned him a spot on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica this year as well as a spot in next month’s Korn Ferry Tour qualifying tournament.
  • Chase Johnson, an APGA regular since turning pro in 2019 after playing golf at Kent State. Johnson played in the Rocket Mortgage Classic in June, making the cut in the PGA event that earned him $18,000. Johnson also played in two Korn Ferry Tour tournaments this year.
  • Willie Mack, a Bethune-Cookman University graduate who turned pro in 2011. Mack, an APGA regular, has played in a couple of PGA events (the Wells Fargo Championship and the Butterfield Bermuda Championship) and several Korn Ferry Tour events.
  • Tim O’Neal, who plays on the PGA Tour Champions (pro senior tour). O’Neal, a Jackson State University alum, has played on numerous tours including the APGA. He qualified to play in the 2015 U.S. Open.
  • Wyatt Worthington, an APGA tour regular who has qualified to play in three PGA Championships. Worthington was also a member of the team representing the United States that won the 2022 PGA Cup team championship (a competition for club professionals).

The APGA Tour has experienced significant growth since that first year when it offered $40,000 in prize money. The prize money in 2023, through increased sponsorships, totals $1 million.

Not only is the money bigger, but so are the venues. The APGA’s first event of the year, the Farmers Insurance Invitational at Torrey Pines, is played in the days after the PGA’s Farmers Insurance event at the same course which allows the interaction between players from both tours.

“We’ve been involved with the APGA for 10 years, and we’re really inspired to do more,” said Jenny Howell, the head of brand and consumer marketing at Farmers Insurance. “We’ve been able to get [the APGA Farmers Invitational] televised to really expose the APGA and their mission to a broader audience.”

For Bentley, it’s rewarding to witness the growth of an idea that stemmed from a conversation about an increase in Black golfer representation.

“I was a tennis player in college [UC Santa Barbara] and a Black professor once came to my dorm room with two of the most expensive rackets he could find, all because he wanted me to have the tools to be successful,” Bentley said. “Years ago, we found out that few of our golfers had been fitted for clubs, and they didn’t have top-level coaching. We’re trying to provide that through our tour and player development program, so they can have the tools to be successful.”

Marcus Byrd poses with a flag after winning the APGA at Valhalla tournament on July 25 in Louisville, Kentucky.

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The initial tools for Marcus Byrd’s success came from accompanying his late father to Langston Golf Course in Washington. It was once the main place in Washington where Black golfers played.

Langston, for a long time the main gathering spots for Black golfers in the district, has hosted a long list of celebrities including Calvin Peete, Maurie Wills, Joe Louis and Stephen Curry.

“I was 2 or 3 [years old] swinging plastic golf clubs at that place,” Byrd said. “I practically grew up there. My dad could drop me off at 7 a.m. and go to work and not worry about anything since chances are I’d run into some cousins or uncles there.”

Byrd played golf at Middle Tennessee State, where he was the 2019 Conference USA Player of the Year. Once college was over, he assumed his time of playing competitive golf had ended as well.

I got a call from my coach,” Byrd said. “He said someone from the APGA wanted to help me get my golf career started.”

Bentley and Smith arranged to bring Byrd on tour, “and once I got on, I never looked back.” Byrd went from caddying and working at a golf pro shop to playing as a regular on the APGA, where he’s been one of the tour’s most successful golfers, winning four events this year.

“I’ve been fortunate to have good people pull me back into the sport and get me on the right track,” Byrd said. “The APGA has done an awesome job with getting us in the right doors and meeting with the right people.”

Now Byrd’s a full-time golfer, with sponsors and an agent. As the top golfer in overall points on the tour this year, Byrd earned a spot on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica for 2024.

Now, Byrd’s a full-time golfer with sponsors and an agent. As the top golfer on this year’s tour with four wins — Byrd won both the Lexus Cup and the Mastercard Player of the Year Award in overall points on the tour this year — Byrd earned a spot on the 2024 PGA Tour Latinoamérica. Not bad for a guy who, after college, didn’t know if golf was going to be a part of his future.

“When I started this, I’d drive to tournaments up and down the East Coast, and me and my friend even slept in cars,” Byrd said. “I wanted this so bad, I wanted to play at the highest level and I was willing to do whatever I had to to get here.”

With the PGA Tour Latinoamérica next, Byrd now feels one step closer to his ultimate dream— and the advancement of the mission on which the APGA was established.

“In five years I want to be on the PGA Tour, be ranked in the top 100 and contend in majors,” Byrd said. “That’s my goal, that’s what I’m striving toward. And I would like it to be sooner rather than later.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.