Golf is more than a sport. It’s a shot at upward mobility — and Steph Curry understands that

Some might say Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry has already “made it,” and now he’s using his success to help future generations of African-Americans do the same.

The three-time NBA champion has announced he will fund the first six years of a new NCAA Division 1 program at Howard University — but for golf, not basketball. The program, expected to debut in the 2020-21 academic year, will include a men’s and women’s team.

But this donation is about more than athletics. It’s about providing young black men and women with access to places where politicians, CEOs and influencers have historically come together to network. It’s about upward social mobility.

“Golf is a sport that has changed my life in ways that are less tangible, but just as impactful,” Curry said in a statement, comparing the sport to basketball. “It’s a discipline that challenges your mental wherewithal from patience to focus, and is impossible to truly master.”

Golf isn’t just a sport

Clint Sanchez has seen firsthand how the game of golf can change a young person’s life.

As executive director of The First Tee of Greater Washington, DC, Sanchez works with kids between the ages of 7 and 18.

Given the slow pace of the sport, golfers spend long periods of time with other players.

“I’ve made a lot of contacts, a lot of friends through golf,” said Sanchez, who held his first golf club 40 years ago, when he was 4. “I would argue I would not be where I am today as a person that’s a non-profit executive without the game of golf.”

For some golfers, the social benefits that come along with the sport are what they value. It’s the sport that can be played for a lifetime.

The students who participate in the Howard golf program will have the chance to broaden their network with other Division 1 schools, especially those in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which includes Bethune-Cookman University, Florida A&M University and Morgan State University.

Vernel Bennett, president of the United Black Golfers Association, said golf can lead to greater business and social opportunities. And the players at Howard can learn that and take some of those relationships into their careers.

“You’re stuck on a course with someone for four or five hours. You can talk about something,” said Bennett, who co-founded his organization in 2014. “It’s not enough just to work hard. You have to put yourself out there and network.”

But it wasn’t always this way

Country clubs had a history of discriminating against African-Americans, making it difficult for black people to play.

Even when black golfers were accepted into tournaments hosted by the Professional Golfers’ Association, they sometimes still couldn’t participate because the host club wouldn’t allow them on the premises.

With no place to play, African-Americans opened their own country clubs and advocated for public courses that served their communities, such as Langston Golf Course in Washington, where Curry made his announcement last week.

Langston was built in 1939 and remains one of the nation’s most important historically black golf courses, which made Curry’s choice of venue even more profound. Langston hosted tournaments for African-American players in partnership with black organizations, including the United Golfers Association, established in 1925.

“It was more than a get-together. It was like a party atmosphere,” said Ernie Andrews, a member of Langston’s golf operations team for more than 30 years, who grew up participating in its junior golf programs. He mentioned players such as Ted Rhodes and Pete Brown. “They were very proud, and the community had a lot of respect for these individuals.”

The PGA, which desegregated in 1961, created a policy in 1990 stating it would not play tournaments at country clubs that did not welcome African-American members.

“After that point, you cannot turn on the TV and see the pros playing at a golf course that’s at a private all-white golf course,” said Lane Demas, a Central Michigan University history professor who wrote the book “Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf.” “Like dominos, they all start to fall.”

And there’s still a ways to go

When Curry visited Howard’s campus in January, he met a student named Otis Ferguson, who told the basketball player about how he had to choose between playing golf at the collegiate level and attending the historically black college. He asked Curry to help Howard start a golf program.

So when Curry came back to campus last week, all eyes were on the rising senior who had helped make it happen.

“It’s a dream come true. It’s unbelievable,” Ferguson told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.

The student athletes who will benefit from Curry’s gift will be required to give back to youth programs such as The First Tee and Curry’s Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation. Through volunteering, they will help grow the game of golf and its benefits exponentially.

“The reality is that this is about creating opportunities for the next generation of Otis Fergusons,” said Howard athletic director Kery Davis.

The idea isn’t about seeing more black golfers at the professional level. It’s about seeing more social and economic growth in black communities. Golf is one way to make that happen.

“We’re cultivating and nurturing future young leaders,” Davis said. “Golf is the kind of sport where CEOs, doctors, lawyers — that’s their sport of leisure. We want our students to have those same types of opportunities.”

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