At UMES, a change of course

Historically black college tries to counter sport's image as a game only for white players

October 25, 2005|By KRISTEN WYATT

PRINCESS ANNE -- A manicured golf course was right across the street from the house where Christina Cooper spent her childhood.

But growing up black in Baltimore, Cooper never thought of golf as a game for her - until her college announced plans to offer the nation's first golf management degree at a historically black school and opened for-credit lessons and a driving range on campus.

"I kind of always wanted to play, but I never did. It was expensive, kind of a club," said Cooper, a 22-year-old biology major who took a break practicing putting recently in her class, Golf Instruction 101. "When I think of golf, I think of rich people and country clubs. So that's cool that they're teaching us this."

The Golf Academy at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore is still in its infancy. Started last year, the only course is a one-credit elective, and school officials say their dreams of building a golf course on campus and offering a bachelor's degree in golf management are years away. But school President Thelma B. Thompson has ambitious goals - to be the nation's first historically black college with a PGA-endorsed degree in golf management and to open the game to students who didn't learn it growing up.

"Golf is a growing sport for minorities and women right now, and we want to focus on the future," said Thompson, who said she got the idea when she visited the Princess Anne campus in 2002 as a prospective president and its lush landscaping reminded her of a golf course.

Three semesters ago, the UMES Golf Academy set up an office in a racquetball court in the school gym and started asking the 3,800 students through e-mails and fliers if they wanted to learn golf.

Leading the academy is Marshall Cropper, a UMES alumnus who was a receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1960s before retiring and running golf tournaments full time. He acknowledges that students who see the "Golf Academy" sign in his window are sometimes skeptical.

"We have been raised to play football and basketball. We have come to see football and basketball as a means to get an education. We were not raised to play golf," Cropper said. "Golf starts with grandfathers and daddies who play golf and pass it on to their children. And on the minority side, we have a lot of single moms that don't have the time to play golf. But that's changing."

Cropper said a growing black middle class, more high school golf teams and prominent minority golfers such as Tiger Woods have increased interest in golf among young black people. Cropper said he hopes to start the degree program and resurrect a school golf team - UMES hasn't fielded one since 1961.

But more than that, he said, he wants black college students to learn the game even if they have no interest in a golf-related career.

The game of golf, school officials said, is a business networking tool. Knowing how to play could help launch graduates' careers. Not knowing could leave them feeling intimidated in the business world when white colleagues go out for a round.

In Golf Instruction 101, golf pro Ted Simpson goes over swings with the class of 11 students and then breaks them up to work on putting. He said golf classes at a college are far different from those he taught in his previous job as a pro at a Virginia course.

"It's so much more educational. We talk about physics, the angles, the kinetic energy," Simpson said.

Future courses could include business management and turf grass study. School administrators envision a hospitality management degree that would incorporate environmental studies.

If accredited by the PGA, UMES would join 17 other schools with a Professional Golf Management program, which can take 4 1/2 to five years and includes a golf industry internship. Graduates can work at golf courses, with professional golfers or for sporting-goods companies. Schools already offering golf management degrees include Florida State, Clemson and UNLV.

At Florida State, Golf Management director Jim Riscigno said a golf degree at a historically black school could help chip away at golf's image as a game only for white people.

"I think it'd be terrific for a school like [UMES] to start a program. The game of golf does not have near the diversity it needs to have," said Riscigno, who said 70 students are enrolled in Florida State's program. "We've had a lot of luck attracting women, but not so much minorities."

One potential roadblock for UMES: The PGA certification requires students to have a minimum golf handicap of 12 or lower, held by golfers who are well above average. In the UMES class, most of the students have never tried the game before, and they seem more interested in learning golf to augment other careers rather than going into golf full time.

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