For Mulbe Dillard IV, the journey to his pro golf debut traveled through Florida A&M
He’s playing in the Korn Ferry Tour in the Rex Hospital Open
Mulbe Dillard IV is making his pro debut Thursday at the Rex Hospital Open on the Korn Ferry Tour. The 22-year-old Chicago native earned an exemption into the field at the Country Club at Wakefield Plantation in Raleigh, North Carolina, by finishing first in the Advocates Pro Golf Association (APGA) Collegiate Ranking after a stellar career at Florida A&M, where he led the Rattlers this season to the program’s first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship and an appearance in the NCAA regionals.
Dillard is one of four Rattlers who made the top five in the inaugural class of the APGA Tour Collegiate Ranking, which provides opportunities for the top Black collegiate players.
A little more than a month after graduating from FAMU with a degree in business administration, Dillard is setting out on a journey to earn his way onto the PGA Tour, where there are currently only four African American players and none from a historically Black college or university (HBCU).
Last week, I caught up with Dillard by phone as he was driving his Chevy Equinox from his new apartment in Orlando, Florida, to meet his swing coach, Charles Raulerson, in Jacksonville. From there, he would make the six-hour drive with Raulerson to Raleigh. And from there, they might drive on to the next Korn Ferry Tour stop at the BMW Charity Pro-Am for a Monday qualifier in Greer, South Carolina.
Most of the journeys to the PGA Tour begin with players traveling in their own cars from one mini-tour event to the next. It’s not the glamorous life of private planes, catered meals and courtesy cars that can come with a successful PGA Tour career, but more often a steady grind to make cuts and eke out a living on small purses to continue the dream. Without the benefit of the close-knit team structure they may have had in college, new golf pros often help sustain each other by carpooling, sharing hotel rooms on the road and sharing wisdom about the nuances of golf courses and instructional gadgets.
Since his freshman year, Dillard has had a glimpse of this world as an amateur on the APGA Tour, a pro tour founded in 2010 by Ken Bentley that focuses on giving mostly Black touring professionals a place to develop their games for the PGA Tour. Several good finishes on this circuit have convinced Dillard that he has what it takes to compete against the best players in the world. “I was doing pretty well in these professional events against players who had been pros for a long time, so I didn’t see why I shouldn’t try to play at the next level,” he told me.
But his parents, Mulbe Dillard III and Sidney Dillard, had other plans for their son, whom they raised with their 19-year-old daughter Harper, a sophomore at the University of Miami. Over the summers after his freshman and sophomore years at FAMU, Dillard interned at private equity firms. But during his junior year, the summer internship opportunities dried up because of coronavirus pandemic restrictions. So instead of crunching numbers on Excel spreadsheets, he worked on his golf game and competed on the APGA Tour. Over Christmas in 2020, he told his parents that he planned to turn pro after graduation.
“We were setting him up for a future in some corporate job,” Dillard III said. “We kind of thought that he might turn pro, but kids change their minds about stuff all the time. But after we talked about it, we told him to go ahead and go for it because we didn’t want him to look back and wonder what could have happened had he tried to play.”
Since their son has no lucrative corporate endorsements, Dillard’s parents are now his primary financial backers in a sport where players pay for their own travel expenses and don’t earn money on the course unless they make cuts. “We’re providing for our son now like we did when he was 8 years old,” Dillard III said.
His journey began at age 2
Dillard’s pilgrimage to FAMU and pro golf began in Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side with a foundation laid by his father, a plumber-turned-Chicago Water Department superintendent, and his mother, an investment banker. First taking up the game at the age of 2 when he would tag along with his father to the Jackson Park Golf Course, Dillard developed into an elite player through a tenacious work ethic and a willingness to overcome some of the obstacles posed by growing up in a city not known for turning out PGA Tour players.
Early on, Dillard’s father told him that he needed to put some “skin in the game” if he wanted to succeed in the sport. “We don’t have to do this,” his father told him when he was about 11. “Don’t think you’re doing this for me. You can’t rely on me all the time to take you to the golf course. You have to want to do it.” Dillard took that lesson to heart. Occasionally, during the summer when his parents or grandparents couldn’t drive him to Jackson Park, an 11-year-old Dillard would put a few clubs into a golf pouch and ride his bike along the lakefront with the wind cutting into him along the 35-minute trip from his house. Later after he got serious about golf during his ninth grade year, his parents would often drop him off at the Metro station and he would travel 40 minutes to the southern suburb of Homewood, Illinois, where he would play at the Ravisloe Country Club to experience better course conditions.
To raise the level of his game to a standard that would give him a chance to compete with the best, he traveled even farther to the Mistwood Golf Dome in Romeoville, Illinois, where he worked with the Mistwood Performance Center Committed Athlete Program during high school. From October to April, his father drove him to the performance center three days a week. “That’s when my game started to turn around,” Dillard told me. “I was practicing with a lot of the top kids from Illinois who were also trying to get better. If you didn’t get better there, you weren’t focusing.”
Dillard competed on several junior golf circuits, including the Illinois Junior Golf Association and the Hurricane Junior Golf Tour. “I had a pretty solid junior career toward the end when I started practicing more,” he said. “I was mostly in the middle of the pack for most of my early stages in golf. But the hard work paid off as I started to get much better results.”
At times on the junior circuits, Dillard faced the reality of often being the only Black kid entered in the tournaments, a reality that meant that the other kids were not always nice to him. He was a Black city kid competing mostly against white kids from the suburbs. “It was my job to protect him and keep him focused,” Dillard III said. “I wanted him to know that when he looked over at me during a round that I was there for reinforcement.”
Not the usual route to the PGA Tour
When it came time for Dillard to choose a college, his father wanted him to go to a program where he could make a long-term impact. Like most other sports, many American-born PGA Tour professionals come from Power 5 conference schools such as Georgia, Clemson, Texas, Oklahoma State and Alabama. Not since Adrian Stills, a South Carolina State graduate, earned his PGA Tour card through the 1985 Q-school has a Black player come from a Black college. Most of the first few generations of Black PGA Tour players — Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Pete Brown, Calvin Peete — didn’t attend college. Their introductions to the game had come largely through caddying before setting out on the UGA Tour, the all-Black tour that was home to top Black pros before the PGA of America’s Caucasian-only policy was struck down in 1961.
Nowadays, most Black kids coming through the pipeline still don’t have a realistic opportunity of following the same route as white players: top-level junior tournaments, elite instruction, busy summer amateur schedules and college programs full of amenities such as access to private golf courses and the latest launch monitors.
None of the HBCU golf programs offer great facilities or great teaching technology, but for Dillard and many other Black players, these schools have allowed them to grow as both athletes and human beings capable of leaving a mark on their programs while building a tradition of winning. “My dad told me that when I go to FAMU he wanted me to make other Black golfers want to come to this school,” Dillard said. “He wanted to have them believe that when they look at me they can believe that because I did it, they can do it too.”
FAMU golf coach Mike Rice believes that Dillard has delivered on the challenge presented by his father when he came to the school as a freshman in 2017. Dillard has made strides on the golf course as the program has found success, even as it has routinely faced elimination through athletic department budget cuts. Between his freshman and senior years, Dillard’s scoring average dropped from 77 to 73.5, a phenomenal leap over that stretch. He won two events during his junior year, and at the NCAA regionals in Tallahassee, Florida, in May, he finished in a tie for 28th with a 1-over total with rounds of 74, 71, 72 at the Golden Eagle Country Club.
“Mulbe was our captain for three years and I didn’t name him captain,” Rice said. “He named himself captain. He wanted to be the leader of the team. He’s a guy that leads by example. Everybody respected him and they just kind of followed him.
“One of Mulbe’s goals has always been to leave the program in a better place than he found it, and he’s absolutely done that. The program is in a position now because of the success that we’ve had since Mulbe’s been here that we’re getting kids that want to come here and play, from just a few years ago when many people even on campus didn’t know we had a golf team.”
Dillard’s goal now is to make it on the PGA Tour. The road to the tour begins this week in Raleigh, where his caddie will be Raulerson, his swing instructor who played on the PGA Tour in the late 1990s and won two events on the Korn Ferry Tour. This former LSU golfer and golf course owner knows something about the struggle that Dillard will encounter in this quest. “Mulbe is going to need all the tools, not just being a good ball striker,” Raulerson said. “He’s got to have them all and we have to prepare properly, six days a week, every single week. He has potential, both mentally and physically.”
Dillard won’t have the camaraderie of collegiate golf and playing on a team, but he will have several of his FAMU teammates who have also turned pro and the friends he’s made on the APGA Tour to provide support as he embarks on this new path. There will be weekly tests of his stamina for this life, both on and off the course, but he will have an opportunity in the fall to qualify for the Korn Ferry Tour, which is the developmental tour for the PGA Tour.
“I’m definitely ready to play golf full time,” Dillard said. “Obviously from being a college athlete and not being able to have 100% time commitment to the sport is something that I looked forward to before turning pro because I wanted to be able to put my full effort into it and not have any distractions or reasons to blame bad play. Now that it’s my job, I’m very glad that I will be able to put the work in and the results will show.”
Work. It’s the word that Dillard kept repeating as we talked during his two-hour drive from Orlando to Jacksonville. It’s the ingredient that he believes will take him and many other African American players to the PGA Tour. He told me, “The more African Americans knowing to put in the work and the more we have playing trying to get to the PGA Tour, the better percentage of us who will make it.”