Black club pro hopes to thrive and inspire at PGA Championship

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TULSA, Okla. – The numbers are not in his favor in Southern Hills, something Wyatt Worthington II has never faced before.

Worthington, who spends his working hours teaching lessons at the Golf Depot in central Ohio, is among 20 club professionals who have qualified for the PGA Championship. In five of the last 10 years, no professional club has been able to make it to the weekend. Go back to 1994 to find the club’s last pro to finish in the top 30.

And then there is another set of odds.

Worthington is only the second black club professional to play in the PGA Championship.

When Worthington, 35, first traveled to the PGA Championship at Baltusrol in 2016, he was the first black club professional to play the major in 25 years. Tom Woodard, now in the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame, was the only other, in 1991 at Crooked Stick.

“Did that surprise me? Let me give you a two-sided answer,” Worthington said. “Yes, it surprised me. But the more information I had, the more it wasn’t.

The PGA of America has 28,343 professionals, 194 of whom identify as African American. Out of a field of 312 PGA Professional Championship players, Worthington was one of three black club pros, “the most I’ve ever seen”. He finished tied for fourth to qualify for the PGA.

“For me to even be in the pro club championship, I’m not supposed to be there statistically,” he said.

And now he plays against the strongest field of the four majors, which includes Tiger Woods, the player responsible for his fall in love with golf.

Southern Hills is a course Worthington would only have dreamed of playing when he was hitting golf balls in outdoor baseball diamonds in Ohio as a teenager, simulating bunkers by scratching the inside dirt and perfecting his game. on courses and public courses on the east side of Columbus. .

Now is a chance to show he can perform and hopefully inspire.

“I look forward to playing some really good golf, being in the environment, making changes and touching the spectators,” Worthington said. “It has an impact on people.”

The PGA of America didn’t even allow black professionals until 1961, when its Caucasian-only clause was finally overturned. He has redoubled his efforts to change the face of golf, not only at the elite level, but also in pro shops and other industries the game touches.

Seth Waugh, CEO of the association, said golf is an $85 billion industry with 2 million jobs. The mission is to attract people from all walks of life and show that there is room in the industry inside and outside the ropes. And that’s a long way to go.

“We only had Caucasians until 1961, and that’s unimaginable,” Waugh said. “But on the other hand, it’s been 60 years and we haven’t moved the needle enough. It’s a very long trip and we’re very serious about it. We are not trying to tick a box. We are all part of it.

The association is emerging from the 36th edition of the PGA Works Collegiate Championship — formerly the National Minority College Championship — as well as spin-off programs aligned with historically black colleges or universities and designed to open pathways to careers in golf.

The PGA Tour has invested $100 million in racial equity and inclusion, including $10,000 grants to each of HBCU’s more than 50 men’s and women’s golf programs for travel and recruiting. The Tour and the PGA of America are making the best golf courses available for the Advocates Professional Golf Association Tour, which this year hosted the final round of a 36-hole event at Torrey Pines televised on the Golf Channel.

Worthington tied for fourth in the Billy Horschel APGA Tour Invitational at TPC Sawgrass two weeks ago. Horschel was so inspired by APGA that he created the largest scholarship ($125,000) on the calendar.

And on Monday, he was training on the front nine with Worthington ahead of a major championship.

“I think he has a good chance of playing well. He’s an impressive kid, an impressive story,” Horschel said. “He just needs a break or two with some financial backing. Corporate sponsors should look for people like that.

Worthington still remembers his greatest golf moment, almost to the minute. It was July 29, 2001, at a clinic in Columbus hosted by The First Tee and the Tiger Woods Foundation. Woods gave individual instructions to each child.

“We all had blue hats, white shirts, black shorts,” Worthington said. “When Tiger came in, he had that aura. Everyone is silent. You have just felt its presence and its energy. He spent probably 10-20 minutes with me and it felt like over an hour.

Worthington came home that day and told his father he wanted to play on the PGA Tour.

“I said, ‘What’s your backup plan? ‘,’ his father recalled as he stood outside the Southern Hills clubhouse. “He just wanted to be in golf.”

Worthington went to Methodist University of North Carolina for the Professional Golf Management program. He worked at Muirfield Village as an assistant pro and now teaches at Golf Depot, which has a range, academy and a Par 3 course.

His hope is that the kids love golf as much as he does. His passion remains rooted in the game. What he lacks is his funding, and Worthington believes that is the biggest obstacle to greater diversity in golf.

“It’s going in the right direction,” he said. “Do we have a long way to go? Sure. And Seth did an amazing job. But there is a problem. Having exposure at a young age? Most checked that box through Tiger, so that’s not it. We need access, we need opportunities and we need funding.

Golf is expensive at the base with equipment. Add travel and fees, and it adds up.

“I’m a First Tee kid from Columbus who went through a PGM program. I tick a lot of boxes. I played by the rules and did everything in my power, and I’m struggling,” Worthington said. “It’s not about, ‘What more do I need to do?’ It’s just to show how difficult it is.

Woods can’t remember the lessons he gave Worthington two decades ago. He touched many lives in golf. They remember. But he can enjoy fate. When he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Woods said his parents took out a second mortgage to allow him to compete in junior golf tournaments.

Yes, access is improved and golf organizations are doing their part.

“But how do you maintain that?” Woods said. “That’s the hardest part. How do you keep them in there for years at a time? And then you look at the pyramid effect. The higher you go, the harder the competition and the more children are going to be dropped.

Worthington continues to tune in. He teaches. He caddies to the side. Any money he can save goes to tournaments and travel. It led to another shot at the PGA Championship, which he sees as an opportunity and a platform – for himself and the PGA.

“Having Wyatt here and letting the kids see someone who looks like them and having the opportunity to do what he does, for him, is huge,” Waugh said. “For us, that’s huge.”

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