Golfer Cameron Champ is going places his grandfather wasn’t allowed
Emerging PGA star wants to create a legacy in both golf and community service
Mack Champ was decked out in his Air Force blues as he rode home to Columbus, Texas, when his Trailways bus pulled over for a rest stop near College Station. He wandered inside in search of a burger, but instead found only a vile insult.
“They told me they don’t serve n—–s,” Mack Champ recalled. He got back on the bus, wounded and hungry, but determined not to be consumed by the bitterness he felt churning in his gut.
That was 1961. Mack Champ never forgot the incident or the other indignities he faced living in the segregated South, but neither did he dwell on them. He worked and clawed his way to a better life, eventually settling and raising his own family in Sacramento, California. He did not tell his family about that incident in Texas until his life had come full circle more than a half-century later.
By then, his grandson Cameron Champ was a celebrated golf recruit at Texas A&M University. The school is located in College Station, not far from the restaurant where his grandfather once was refused service, and did not admit its first black students until 1963. Mack had spent countless hours teaching the game to his grandson, and now it was his hope that sharing his ugly experience in College Station would make Champ mindful of both his privilege and his responsibility.
Mack’s history lesson stuck, and so did all the golf lessons.
Champ went on to become an All-American golfer in College Station. He won the Sanderson Farms Championship in Jackson, Mississippi, in October in just his second start as a PGA Tour member. It was one of three top-10 finishes in the early months of his ongoing rookie season.
Champ is widely hailed as the next big thing on the PGA Tour and the most promising African-American golfer the game has seen since his idol Tiger Woods called himself black. The 23-year-old certainly has all the makings of a star. He is handsome and lean, with a confident grin and broad shoulders that taper to a narrow waist. In an era of athletic power golfers who patterned themselves after Woods, Champ is among the most athletic and most powerful. He has a smooth, easy swing that generates incredible club speed. He is averaging more than 315.7 yards off the tee so far this season, making him the PGA’s longest driver, 3.2 yards ahead of second-place Rory McIlroy.
The challenge confronting Champ is whether he can harness his prodigious power and promise to perform consistently. For now, he has a long way to go to become another Woods, who joined the tour at age 20 and by 21 had won three tournaments, including the Masters. The PGA rates Champ as the 102nd-best golfer in the world.
After a sizzling start to his rookie season, Champ has fallen in the rankings from as high as 78th as he has struggled in tournaments leading up to this week’s PGA Championship. He either failed to make the cut or withdrew from the six tournaments he has entered since tying for 28th at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in early February. Still, Champ is widely viewed as the top player among the tour’s 21 rookies. He says he will reach his potential only if he refines his short game and gets better at controlling his emotions when things go awry.
“I just want to stay in my zone and not really see anything that’s negative or may come out,” he said, adding that he quit social media to help cut down on the unproductive noise in his life. “Now I feel like I have more of a blinders effect.”
As Champ strives to fulfill his golf potential, he is also working to cement his family’s legacy in his hometown of Sacramento by working to attract more black golfers to the game while creating a science, technology and math (STEM) program for young people.
The family recently launched the Cameron Champ Foundation, which is assuming operation of the 9-hole Foothill Golf Course just outside Sacramento, where Champ frequently played as a child. The foundation plans to renovate the course’s clubhouse, adding classrooms where minority and low-income youth can take STEM classes and earn free golf equipment and time on the course. The operating lease requires the foundation to pay a token $790 a month to the local recreation district, and the foundation has pledged to cover the cost of the planned improvements as it builds its resources.
Champ dreams of a day when his foundation can contribute millions to help at-risk youth, much as Woods’ foundation has over the past two decades. He also would like to open a school to offer low-income students a top-flight education and a shot at college scholarship money, like the one LeBron James, another of his sports heroes, founded last year in Akron, Ohio.
Champ said the desire to both excel in golf and give back to his community comes directly from his grandfather and the racism he endured in the past. He is not emotional or angry when he recounts his grandfather’s experiences, but he says he is always cognizant of them.
“Overall, there is definitely a story of progress in the country. I mean, from the ’60s to now, things have undoubtedly improved,” he said. “Still, there are still a lot of issues in our country, and Grandpa has seen some of that.”
His father, Jeff Champ, 52, says he raised his son to remember that his aspirations should always be for more than just himself. Similarly, Champ was taught that many people contributed to his success. “I always told him, ‘It’s got to be bigger than you,’ ” Jeff said. “If it’s not bigger than you, then chances are it’s not worthwhile.”
It is advice Champ has taken to heart. When talking about the rush of success he is experiencing on the tour, he is quick to praise the man who taught him to play.
“Grandpa is probably the most kindhearted, forgiving man I know,” he said. “Just knowing what he’s been through puts a little chip on my shoulder and motivated me to do as good, and as much good, as I can while Pops is still alive. Obviously, a dream for me would be for me to win with him there.”
Mack, 77, was home in Sacramento recovering from a kidney transplant when his grandson won at Sanderson, but he followed every stroke on television. By the time Champ and his dad were embracing on the 18th green, his grandfather was on the phone to share the moment.
“We did it for you, Grandpa,” they said. “We did it for you.”
To hear his grandfather tell it, Champ showed unusual promise as a golfer as soon as he picked up a club. When Champ was just a toddler, his grandfather and his wife, Lulu, would baby-sit him, and they bought him a set of plastic clubs to play with in the backyard. Mack, who had gotten the golf bug growing up caddying at an all-white course in Texas, taught his grandson the grip, the setup, the alignment, the backswing and all the other basics of golf. It was quickly apparent that Champ was a natural.
“Right away, he was hitting the ball over the bushes,” Mack said. Before long, Mack would tee the plastic ball up high and help Champ open his club face, and the little boy would send plastic balls soaring over Mack’s one-story home.
“He’d come running, saying, ‘Grandpa, I hit it over the house,’ ” Mack recalled. “I’d say, ‘I know that. I’m over here chasing the balls.’ ”
It was a few years until Champ’s father first believed that he had a shot to become a professional golfer. Jeff had been an outstanding athlete growing up, starring in football, basketball and baseball. He went to San Diego State to play baseball and spent two years as a minor league catcher before a broken hand ended his athletic career. Jeff assumed that if Champ was going to be an athlete, it would be in one of the sports he knew best. But that changed when he realized how well his son could swing a club.
“I truly saw God’s gift when he swung a golf club. There was so much power,” Jeff said. “He must have been 5 and this little kid could hit a golf ball. I mean, most kids his age couldn’t even make a swing, and this kid is hitting it 150 yards.”
Early on, Champ and his family focused on golf. His father worked with him on drills to sharpen his eye-hand coordination and quickness. Jeff would sit a few feet from Champ with a catcher’s mask on and toss a golf wiffle ball to his son, who would try to hit it with a plastic bat. As Champ got better at making contact, Jeff would toss the balls faster.
He competed in junior tournaments, often playing against, and dominating, older competition. The family poured its money — Jeff and his wife, Lisa, a former cheerleader, ran a screen printing and trophy business — into entry fees and travel to help Champ develop his game.
“He had a talent, and we supported it,” Jeff said. “Whereas some parents might want the big house, this is what we wanted.”
By the time Champ was old enough for high school, he and his parents elected for him to pursue independent studies. That meant he only had to attend school to take tests and could spend more time working on his game.
“I really didn’t care much about all the high school nonsense,” Champ said. “I just really wanted to focus on golf.”
As the family got deeper into the junior golf world, Jeff recognized that it was almost entirely white. Both Mack and Jeff married white women, and Champ is fair-skinned with light brown hair. Nonetheless, Jeff wanted to ensure that Champ, who identifies as African-American, embraced his blackness and felt an easy connection with other African-Americans.
Jeff made a point of taking him to a neighborhood park to play basketball. At first, Jeff would look on from afar, not letting on that Champ was his son. He wanted Champ to find his own place in the hurly-burly of a playground basketball game with black teenagers.
“I just wanted to make sure he was going to fit in and nobody was going to mess with him,” Jeff recalled. “Next thing you know, they were calling him Blake Griffin. So he knew right away that he fit in.”
Champ also fit in on the golf circuit. He said he always felt comfortable and well-supported. Meanwhile, his powerful game spoke for itself.
In many ways, Champ is living his grandfather’s dream. Not only is he playing professional golf, but he is enjoying a life — prize money; endorsement deals with Ping, Nike and Srixon; growing fame — that was unimaginable for a black man when Mack was coming of age in Texas in the 1940s and ’50s. As a kid, Mack earned pocket money picking cotton and caddying at the 9-hole golf course about a mile from his home.
“Before long, I was making more money in the little time I spent caddying than my mom [a domestic] made working all day long,” Mack said.
That course in Texas did not allow blacks to play, and Mack had no clubs. But he would gather discarded golf balls, and once he got home, he and his brother would use a bent metal rod to smack balls into the distance.
Mack did not hit on a real driving range with actual clubs until the Air Force sent him to England in 1961. The base had a small driving range, and Mack would go hit whenever he had some free time. It was not until a few years later that he played his first round of golf, scoring 132, while he was stationed on a Navy base not far from Hamburg, Germany. From then on, he was hooked. He read every golf book he could, and he played wherever the Air Force sent him — from Frankfurt, Germany to South Vietnam.
Mack met his wife, Lulu, who is from Denmark, while he was in Europe, and eventually they were assigned to an Air Force base in Texas. But, Mack said, his interracial marriage forced the Air Force to reconsider that assignment because mixed-race marriages were outlawed in the state until 1967. He and Lulu ended up being sent to California, where interracial marriage was legal.
They raised their three children in California, which was a world away from Texas. The children attended integrated schools, and Mack was able to play golf anywhere he wanted. He developed his game to the point where he regularly shot in the 80s, and sometimes in the 70s. He retired from the Air Force to take a federal government job in 1981 and eventually started teaching the game in Sacramento’s First Tee program. Mack continued working until 2001, when a 6-year-old Cameron started to emerge as a standout on the junior golf circuit, more than holding his own competing against 9-year-olds.
“Once I realized how well he was playing in all these tournaments, I said to myself, I am not going to miss this,” Mack said. “I had a 1996 Windstar van, and we would load up and go.”
As they traveled through the years, Mack would share bits and pieces of his own story, even as he delighted in his grandson’s success. Through it all, he challenged Champ to be ready for whatever opportunities came his way. “What I experienced, those are the times we lived in. But you can’t hold on to the past. The past is past,” Mack said. “Life is never about whatever situation you are in; it is about how you respond to those situations.”
Meanwhile, Champ found motivation in the old man’s stories. He said they instilled pride in both his family and his blackness while sharpening his competitive edge.
“Just knowing my family’s background, that my grandfather could not play as a kid and what happened in College Station and in moving to California,” Champ said, “it is all motivation for me to do as well as I can.”