The Florida A&M golf team came one stroke short of capturing the inaugural Bridgestone HBCU Invitational.
But the team garnered plenty of victories elsewhere, as the PGA Tour—in conjunction with Bridgestone—staged a tournament empowering athletes from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).
“The golf course was in great shape, the competition was good, but I think the best part was having [business] leaders share their story of how they have gotten to where they are in their careers, and sharing that with the student-athletes was huge,” said Mike Rice, the head coach of the Florida A&M men’s golf team, in an exclusive interview with Playing Through.
The tournament, held from Nov. 1-2 at TPC Sugarloaf outside of Atlanta, featured 15 teams from HBCUs: 10 men’s teams and five women’s teams.
Arkansas Pine-Bluff emerged victorious on the men’s side, while Alabama State took home the trophy on the women’s side.
Though wins are meaningful, this tournament was much more about golf, as Coach Rice alluded to.
HBCU Bridgestone Invitational more than a tournament
As part of the event, eight leaders from Bridgestone, the PGA Tour, the Atlanta Hawks, Mercedes-Benz, and other companies—and ESPN’s Michael Collins—held a discussion panel catered to the student-athletes before the competition began.
“You don’t know if you’re gonna have great engagement when you’re talking about education and learning at 9 a.m,” said Caitlyn Ranson, the head of partnership marketing for Bridgestone Americas, in an interview with Playing Through.
“But it was so incredible.”
“The players were super excited about it, and it’s just that what’s exciting is that Bridgestone is not only sponsoring this program for the development of the game, but we’re also hoping to teach these athletes and provide these athletes opportunities with an idea of what life after sport will look like.”
The executives spoke about their success stories, offering advice about what to do as a young professional and emphasizing that golf can create opportunities in many walks of life.
But they also invoked confidence in these young men and women.
“[Many student athletes] feel they lack experience and jobs in the past as opposed to those who have had internships with all these big-name companies,” Ranson added.
“Just because you haven’t had an incredible internship does not mean the skills that sports and the game of golf are teaching cannot be applied.”
After the panel concluded, the panelists separated into groups at different tables. That created a more intimate setting with each of the student-athletes. Topics included resume-building, navigating LinkedIn, and how to handle professional interviews.
Most importantly, these close-knit discussions also talked about the racial barriers that unfortunately still exist and how to power through and prevail.
“We were very intentional with being sure there was representation of color because we want these athletes to see themselves in the future,” Ranson said.
“We know that representation matters, and it starts with seeing it. Another key aspect of the panel was that we wanted to be sure these athletes could see themselves.”
Diverse representation within professional golf has been a problem for years.
That issue prevails today, too. Consider the 2023 U.S. Open at the Los Angeles Country Club, where the field did not include a single black player.
One-hundred and fifty-six individuals teed it up in America’s national championship, and yet, the tournament did not represent the diverse population the United States has to offer.
Which explains why the PGA Tour and Bridgestone have joined forces to empower these student-athletes. This program not only can provide a pathway for an HBCU player to make the PGA Tour, but it also gives someone multiple avenues to pursue other professional opportunities—both in and outside of golf.
PGA Tour taking steps to address diversity issues
“A lot more goes into this than just hitting the ball,” said Kenyatta Ramsey, the Vice President of Player Development for the PGA Tour, in an interview with Playing Through.
“We’re trying to build a holistic program that’s helping these guys not only on the course but off the course. We are helping them with finances, mental health, scheduling for your tournaments, etc.”
Holistic is the word Ramsey kept using to describe this event—a perfect term to describe the vision that the PGA Tour and Bridgestone have for shaping these future professionals.
“There is a lot that goes into it,” Ramsey continued.
“And there is a lot more that is needed if you don’t have the support system like you do when you come out of college, and you go to the NBA or NFL, and you have a whole franchise there helping you. Well, in golf, you are on your own. We underestimate the other stuff that allows professionals to be professionals.
“Now, we’re trying to get them ready to be inside the ropes, but it’s like being able to offer resources holistically in your development. I know we will greatly impact the overall presence of diverse talent on the tours.”
The career panel was undoubtedly a highlight, but as for the tournament itself, the winners received a trophy and an invitation to TPC Sawgrass for a two-day developmental camp.
That program will undoubtedly improve the play of dozens of HBCU student-athletes.
But coaches have reaped the rewards of this initiative as well.
Bridgestone will sponsor the HBCU Coaches Summit, which helps mentor and provide coaches with better insights. The summit is in collaboration with the Golf Coaches Association of America (GCAA) and the Black College Golf Coaches Association (BCGCA).
“It’s great to be able to sit in a room and hear some of the stuff that these other coaches that have won championships are doing,” Rice said about the summit, which he attended last year.
Coaches are teachers, and teachers help empower future generations, whether in preschool or pre-law.
“I am flabbergasted by the amount of passion and love that these coaches have for these kids,” Ramsey said.
Hence the need to provide coaches with valuable resources who will continue supporting HBCU student-athletes.
Talk about a holistic approach.
“Hopefully 10 years from now, in a perfect world, one of these players from the HBCU Invitational is on the tour, right?” Ranson said.
“That’s what we spoke about at the career panels. Like, you guys are living history right now because you have this opportunity to create change. Because at the end of the day, what really matters for future generations is players and fans need to see themselves reflected in the sport that they play.”
But HBCU student-athletes are already making an impact.
Look at Eastside Golf, the apparel company founded by Earl Cooper and Olajuwon Ajanaku, two men who starred on the Morehouse College golf team.
Unsurprisingly, Eastside Golf, whose objective is to further diversify golf through its products, has lent its hand to help those players who competed in the HBCU Bridgestone Invitational.
And this company serves as a perfect example of the overall mission of the tournament.
“What we are trying to do with the HBCU golf network is raising the floor and rewarding the ceiling,” Ramsey said.
“That’s what we’re trying to do with everyone and every team. We’re gonna get everybody up to a level where everybody can be successful together. But then we want to be able to reward the really successful ones when it comes to competitive aspects with enhanced opportunities that are gonna help you grow and then help the ones beneath you to motivate and inspire to be.”
So when looking back on the final tally from the 2023 HBCU Bridgestone Invitational, did Florida A&M really lose?