Changes on course: Cooper aims for more diversity in golf
The golf course can be a lonely place for a Black man or woman.
“You still often feel like you’re the only one,” said Earl Cooper.
The Wilmington resident is exactly that, a solitary figure.
The Professional Golf Association has 29,000 certified pros. Just 165 of them are African-American, including just Cooper from Delaware, according to the PGA.
“There’s this common thread that we have that brings us all together in loving golf,” Cooper said. “But, at the end of the day, golf has a very racial background. Segregation and exclusivity has definitely been within that sport.’’
In 1961, the PGA actually removed a “Caucasian-only” clause from its bylaws that belatedly opened the doors for minority golfers. Many more opportunities were available by the time Cooper, now 31, became a PGA teaching pro.
Yet, he still inexperienced episodes of unfairness which he attributed to his race. He recalled a tournament in his mid-teens when, after returning home, directors called to say he’d been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. Another golfer said he’d written down a nine when he scored a 10 on a hole.
“If I’m getting nines and 10s I’m not winning,” Cooper said, able to laugh at the memory now. “It hurt because nobody wanted to hear my side of the story.”
As a pro, Cooper was mistaken several times for a caddy, valet or member of the wait staff, he said.
While the PGA has had a diversity and inclusion program aimed at growing the sport, it has long been branded as the domain of affluent and white participants.
After George Floyd’s May death and the national outcry for racial justice that followed, Cooper sought to bring the PGA more into the BlackLivesMatter conversation. He found a receptive audience after putting together a video in which he and other PGA pros, Black and white, made “Black Lives Matter” statements. It ended with Cooper asking the PGA of America “to stand with us” and make the same proclamation.
It led to the PGA making a video as part of the “8:46” campaign CBS has launched to raise awareness about racial injustice. Floyd’s death came after a Minneapolis policeman put a knee to his neck for what was initially reported to be 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
The video is airing during telecasts of this weekend’s PGA Championship on ESPN Friday and CBS Saturday and Sunday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.
“When you go through these experiences,” Cooper said in the video, “it’s like, man, I love the game so why are you treating me this way?”
During the video, Cooper is shown in a News Journal article written about him when he was 13 by Matt Zabitka. Cooper had gotten his start age 6 when his dad signed him up for the LPGA Urban Youth Program, which is now the First Tee of Delaware.
In that story, Cooper’s father Earl explained how he wanted his son “to play a sport that wasn’t as violent as football or boxing” and would but him “around good company.” By that time, Cooper was already competing in regional tournaments and winning long-drive competitions.
He graduated from A.I. du Pont High, where he was on the golf team, and then attended Wilmington University before transferring to Morehouse College in Atlanta. In 2010, Cooper helped Morehouse, among the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, win the PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship in Division II.
After graduating with a degree in political science, he worked as an assistant pro at golf courses in Florida and Michigan. Wilmington Country Club head pro Joe Guillebeau then hired him as an assistant pro on his staff in 2015. Guillebeau had gotten to know Cooper when he was in high school and A.I. played home matches at Wilmington.
Cooper later left his Wilmington Country Club position to serve as community referral specialist for Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, focusing, he said, on public/private partnerships. Purzycki had befriended Cooper while playing golf at Wilmington CC, where he is a member.
“I’m very proud of him and I’m not the slightest bit surprised,” Purzycki said. “ . . . I always had the sense that Earl wanted to make a much bigger impact on the world.”
Among Cooper’s accomplishments was putting together last September’s HBCU College Fair at Wilmington’s 76ers Fieldhouse, which featured a live airing of ESPN’s “First Take.”
“He’s inspirational because of his convictions about things,” said Purzycki, adding that the recent push for racial equality “was made for him.”
Charlie Sifford became the first Black to earn a PGA Tour card in 1961. Three years later, Pete Brown’s win at the Waco Turner Open was the first by a Black golfer at a PGA event.
“The struggle is real, the struggle continues,” PGA pro Jeff Dunovant of Atlanta says in the "8:46" video, “and it’s up to us to try and make it easier for everyone else following us.”
The success of Tiger Woods, who won the first of his 15 majors at the 1997 Masters, certainly inched golf closer to the mainstream but not all the way.
“The PGA always says ‘We want our organization to look more like America,’ ” Cooper said. “I think that’s a great statement to have but at this rate it would take 139 years if everything stayed the same.”
Recent breakthroughs are, however, cause for optimism.
“You love the game,” Cooper said, “and you want it to love you back.’’
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