Archdeacon: PGA Tour helps Wilberforce tee it up again

Wilberforce golf coach William Ware with budding Patrick Rukundo, a freshman out of Dayton Dunbar, at a golf simulator. CONTRIBUTED
Wilberforce golf coach William Ware with budding Patrick Rukundo, a freshman out of Dayton Dunbar, at a golf simulator. CONTRIBUTED

When it comes to golf, a cardinal rule is that you’re not supposed to improve your lie.

And yet that’s exactly what’s happening with the sport at Wilberforce University.

In fact, the whole idea is being encouraged and now financed – to the tune of $100,000 – by the PGA Tour.

Three months ago the golf program at the small, historically Black university in Greene County had the equivalent of a bad lie deep in the thick rough.

Needing to meet the NAIA’s minimum requirement that schools have six teams that compete on an intercollegiate level, Wilberforce was determined to relaunch its golf program that found fame over 80 years ago, but had pretty much whiffed in recent comeback attempts.

Over the summer athletics director Derrick Williams brought William “Will” Ware – a former teaching pro at now-closed Madden Golf Course and the branch manager of the PNC bank in Beavercreek – on board with the coaching directive to build a new program.

Never mind the school only had a few sets of old, worn-out golf clubs it was given years earlier by the Midnight Golf Program in Detroit, almost no other equipment, no home course, no recruiting budget and, most notably, no golfers.

When a previous AD attempted resurrecting the program in 2016, the Bulldogs few forays onto a golf course were with basketball players who had been given quick tutorials on the grip and swing.

“We really didn’t have anything,” Williams said.

Ware – who, before he became an accomplished golfer, had been a track standout at Dunbar High and then the University of Cincinnati – took on the challenge and in a month’s time and found nine men’s and women’s athletes (six from Dayton Public Schools), who had GPAs over 3.2, a desire to go to college and a willingness to learn golf if it could be the avenue to continue their education.

William Ware, Wilbeforce golf coach
William Ware, Wilbeforce golf coach

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to first build a foundation, the sport was “suspended” for a year, said Williams.

Then came the PGA Tour’s commitment to help Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs) build their golf programs.

The plan got a high-profile boost on Nov. 27 with a celebrity match featuring NBA Hall of Famer Chares Barkley and golf hall of famer Phil Mickelson against three-time NBA champ Steph Curry and two-time Super Bowl champ Peyton Manning in Capital One’s The Match: Champions for Change, a TNT-televised event at Stone Canyon Golf Club outside Tucson.

The foursome boomed tee shots, talked good-natured trash and raised over $6.4 million for HBCUs while also donating four million meals to Feeding America.

Prior to this, Curry, Barkley and Mickelson all had given money to specific HBCUs in the past.

Some 30 HBCU’s in the nation have golf programs and along with those the foursome singled out, the PGA set its sights on five more schools – Tennessee State, Delaware State, Prairie View A&M, Bowie State and Wilberforce – each of which would get $100,000.

Wilberforce received the money in December.

“That’s going to really give us an opportunity to build something nice,” Williams said.

The school will be able to offer scholarships, buy golf clubs and other equipment, including a simulator to practice indoors, set up a driving range outside, travel to tournaments and pay its coach.

It’s a feel good story at an HBCU that’s especially important now when there’s been so much sadness and concern over the well-being of Tiger Woods, an icon to so many, especially golfers of color, after he was severely injured in an auto accident Tuesday.

Wilberforce has deep ties to another golf hero who came long before Tiger.

“It’s a sport that’s near and dear to Wilberforce because of Mr. Powell,” Williams said.

He was referring to the late Bill Powell, the PGA Hall of Famer, who co-captained, along with his brother Berry, the first Wilberforce golf team in 1937.

Originally from Alabama, Powell and his family moved to Oho and he played football and golf for Minerva High near Canton. When he came to Wilberforce, his team quickly made college sports history.

In what’s considered the first-ever intercollegiate sporting competition between a black college and a white college, Wilberforce beat Ohio Northern in a golf match at Lost Creek Country Club in Lima in 1937.

Wilberforce prevailed in the rematch, too.

After serving in Europe during World War II, Powell returned home, only to be barred from playing on almost all golf courses in the area because he was black.

In fact, until 1961, the PGA of America bylaws banned non-whites from membership.

Powell was determined to build his own course and when local banks refused to loan him the money, he and his wife Marcella borrowed cash from two African American doctors and his brother, bought a 78-acre dairy farm and turned it into Clearview Golf Club.

When it opened in 1948, it was the first integrated course in America and the first that catered primarily to African Americans.

Twenty years ago the place was designated a National Historic Site.

Powell died in 2009. His daughter Renee was the second African American woman to play on the LPGA tour and she too was inducted into the hall of fame.

Today, the Tiger Woods Foundation gives out scholarships in the name of William and Marcella Powell.

And now, Wilberforce – which previously awarded Powell an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters – is launching its new golf program in hopes of reconnecting with that old glory past.

A challenging sport

Ware grew up on Edgemont Avenue near Welcome Stadium.

Although track – especially the 800 meters – was his sport when he went to Dunbar and UC, golf became his new pursuit once he returned home a banker.

He’d get invited to golf outings, but didn’t know how to play until 12 years ago when he first showed up at Madden Golf Course.

He was taught by club pro Larry Price, who’d previously been a pro at Doral’s Silver Course in Miami.

“By me being an athlete my whole life, I thought I was going to be able to go out there and dominate this little bitty sport,” he laughed. “But when I got out there, I couldn’t hit the ball at all and it was frustrating. It became a challenge.”

He got a new set of clubs and a new attitude, started to experience some success and said from that point on: “I was hooked. I started to play every day after work. I loved it.”

He began to play in tournaments, assisted Price in the pro shop and, after several years, he said he found his “niche” giving lessons.

He’s developed an online teaching regimen as well and that’s spun off into a business – Wares The Green Golf – which can be found at www.waresthegreen.com.

Although he worked with some of the Bulldogs new golfers in person almost every day last summer at the Bairs Den Golf range in Clayton, in the fall – with Wilberforce students restricted by COVID protocols – he taught his players, like he did his others students, with online lessons.

Eventually, his assistant coach will be Price, the the seasoned PGA pro, which means Wilberforce just continues to improve its lie.

Wilberforce golfers (right to left) Ngabo Rubibi, Patrick Rukundo and  Yves Tuyishima at driving range. CONTRIBUTED
Wilberforce golfers (right to left) Ngabo Rubibi, Patrick Rukundo and Yves Tuyishima at driving range. CONTRIBUTED

Connection to alumni

The PGA Tour and Wilberforce both get something out of their partnership.

Over the years the PGA has continually faced problems with inaccessibility and the homogeneity of its organization and is trying to improve minority participation and diversity.

Besides wanting to connect to its past and ensuring that is meets the requirements of the NAIA under whose auspices it competes, Wilberforce hopes to bond with some of its alumni.

“A lot of them play golf and they’d like to see it become part of the school, as well,” Williams said.

Ware said even though his initial recruits had no golf experience, they now are making real strides, especially freshmen like Patrick Rukundo and Emmanuel Nshimiymana.

And he has more recruits – who already have played high school golf – joining the team prior to next season.

“I’m pretty excited,” Ware said. “By next fall we could be making some real noise in the game.”

Of course that brings up another cardinal rule, but it too will get special interpretation when Wilberforce golfers – thanks to the help of the PGA Tour – finally step onto the first tee.

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