Following a January screening of “Emanuel,” a documentary about the deadly 2015 shooting of nine black worshipers at a church in Charleston, S.C., a throng of Howard University students jockeyed for handshakes and selfies with the film’s executive producer, NBA star Stephen Curry.
Otis Ferguson, then a junior at Howard, hung back for a moment before catching the ear of the Golden State Warriors guard.
“Hey Steph!” Ferguson called out. “Let’s get in a round of golf before you leave.”
It was a well-calculated shot: In addition to being a three-time NBA champion, two-time MVP and perhaps the best shooter ever, Curry is a passionate golfer.
Ferguson didn’t hit the links with Curry, but they did engage in a brief conversation about their mutual love of the sport. In fact, Ferguson said, he had turned down an offer to play collegiately to attend Howard, which, like many historically black colleges and universities, doesn’t have a golf team.
That chat made such an impression on Curry that he returned to Washington on Monday to announce that he is sponsoring the creation of men’s and women’s golf teams at Howard — bringing competitive golf to the university for the first time in decades.
“To hear somebody as passionate about the game as I was, all the while still pursuing their education at Howard … impacted me,” Curry said in an interview Saturday.
At Monday’s announcement, he set expectations high.
“This is going to go way beyond the game of golf, way beyond Howard,” Curry said. “This is huge.”
The cost of a collegiate golf program, including both operating expenses and scholarships, can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. While declining to reveal the exact amount, Curry’s team said he will make a seven-figure donation paid out over the next six years, aimed at giving Howard time to raise an endowed fund that would make the program self-sustainable.
“We haven’t had people do that for athletics,” Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick said at Monday’s news conference about Curry’s donation, which was described as one of the most generous in the historically black university’s 152-year history. “It’s significant. That’s the argument I’ve been trying to make since I assumed the presidency … this is one of America’s best investments. HBCUs, the return on the investment has been incredible for the country.
“[Curry] has celebrity but I hope that what people will get out of this story is his integrity, his purpose, his motivation behind doing these things.”
Curry himself championed the effects of sport.
“No matter where you come from or what socioeconomic background you had, we all were that kid once upon a time that was just excited about finding out who they were as a person through athletics,” said Curry, who is encouraging these players to make an impact, as well. The student-athletes who join Howard’s golf program also will agree to volunteer in Greater Washington with Eat. Learn. Play., a foundation run by Curry and his wife, Ayesha, that encourages healthy development in children.
For decades, Howard had a Division II team, which university officials believe was discontinued in the 1970s. The new program being financed by Curry is believed to be the first time Howard will have a Division I golf program in the university’s history.
Over the course of those six years, Frederick said the program will have time to grow and assess its competitiveness in Division I golf — the men will play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference while the women must play independently since there are no women’s golf programs in the conference.
When the program launches for the 2020-21 season, it will have a coach and three scholarship athletes, two women and one man. The Bison teams will be outfitted by Under Armour, the shoe company that sponsors Curry, and play with equipment provided by Callaway Golf. University officials say it will also take about a year to figure out where the golf teams will practice and play. One option, they hope, will be Langston Golf Course, the District’s historic black golf course — named for John Mercer Langston, Howard Law School’s first dean and Virginia’s first black congressman. Curry’s announcement Monday was held at the course in Northeast Washington.
“It’s a big opportunity for us to expose students to a game that oftentimes is played as business deals are decided and a game that generations of families can play together,” Frederick said.
Curry’s announcement comes as the sport — more than 20 years after Tiger Woods became the first black golfer to win the Masters — continues to see deep diversity struggles: The PGA Tour is nearly as white today as it was in the 1980s, a number of historic black golf courses across the nation have shuttered, and golf programs at HBCUs are struggling to survive.
Observers and historians note that while there have always been black golfers and caddies, the sport requires too much money and space to be accessible to many black children.
“It’s not a sport that is cheap for people to play, you have to travel long distances to get to golf courses, and golfers don’t get all of the ballyhoo that basketball and football players get,” said Calvin Sinnette, author of “Forbidden Fairways: African Americans and the Game of Golf” and a retired professor at Howard’s medical school.
“As a result,” he added, “the game doesn’t attract many young black people.”
Most often, it’s a sport passed down from parents to their children, which was the case for Ferguson, who spent his boyhood in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., swinging a set of plastic golf clubs, eager to join his father on the green.
He was playing competitively by middle school and made the varsity team his freshman year of high school.
That same year he took a trip to Howard, where his father and uncle had gone, as well as all three of his older sisters and several cousins. Captivated by Howard’s homecoming, Ferguson decided at 14 he would someday enroll, too.
But attending Howard would mean giving up competitive golf.
Few HBCUs prioritize golf programs, instead focusing the bulk of their resources and scholarships on sports more likely to generate revenue, such as football and basketball. Out of more than 100 HBCUs in the country, about 30 have golf programs — and none have their own golf courses on campus, Sinnette said.
“I think black collegiate golf is going to die unless we come up with another Tiger Woods,” said Eddie Payton, who coached Jackson State University’s golf program, among the best in the nation, for 30 years. In 2017, just one year after Payton retired, the university announced it would disband the golf program.
“It broke my heart,” Payton said. “It’s a damn shame that our university leaders don’t see the value.”
During the spring of his sophomore year at Howard, Ferguson posted fliers suggesting the formation of a campus golf group. He was unsure of what to expect, but nearly 40 people showed up. It took until the following fall for Ferguson to work out the logistics, and by the time Curry arrived in January, the club had begun figuring out where it would practice.
Curry was now squatted in front of him, offering to help in any way he could and providing his email address.
They touched base once, then Curry suddenly stopped responding. It was basketball season, of course. Ferguson decided to keep sending updates.
He emailed Curry to say he had found sponsors for the golf club and to cover the cost of tee times. He sent additional messages as the club competed in each of its first two tournaments. He emailed again to relay that he had had a short conversation with the university president, who seemed receptive to the idea of expanding the golf club into an official team.
Still having not heard back, Ferguson sent a fifth and final email to Curry in May, to congratulate him on the Warriors winning the Western Conference finals. Still nothing.
But Curry had been reading the emails and was determined to figure out how he could bankroll a golf program at Howard.
Like Ferguson, Curry picked up golf from his father, former NBA player Dell Curry, first joining him on the course when he was about 10, then spending three years on his high school golf team.
“I was blessed at a young age that we could afford to play,” said Curry, who launched a mini-golf reality show on ABC this summer and is a frequent golf partner of former president Barack Obama. “I just think about how many kids, especially from underserved communities, have the talent to play but just don’t have the funds or the resources.”
Once the NBA season had wrapped, Curry’s team reached out to officials at Howard to ask what it would take to restart the program.
“It was sort of a jolt for us,” said Kery Davis, Howard’s athletic director, adding that university leaders had in the past discussed the idea of reviving the golf program.
“Golf has always been a game of privilege,” Davis said. “An association with the sport can break down barriers.”
University administrators began working with Curry’s representatives to figure out what it would take to sponsor a team and whether it was possible to get things in place before the coming fall semester. Amid the flurry of calls to work out details, they realized that in the scramble, no one had told Ferguson.
He finally found out from a message on Instagram sent by Jeron Smith, a former Howard basketball player who now runs Curry’s media business.
“I don’t know what you said,” Smith wrote to Ferguson, “but you inspired Stephen.”
The next day, the long-awaited phone call finally happened.
“I don’t know how to describe how I felt when I realized the power of that moment,” Ferguson recalled. “I was pretty much speechless.”
On Monday, he finally got in that round with Curry. As temperatures surged past 90, Curry readied to play with Frederick, Ferguson and others.
“There’s no secret how much golf is a passion of mine and again, how much I learned about the game,” Curry said. “I hope [this donation] encourages people in terms of just being authentic about what they want to do and how they can create opportunities to give back.”