Wendell Haskins strives to bring attention to great Black golfers of the past
The former PGA of America executive has made it his mission to improve diversity in golf
Wendell Haskins has put himself at the forefront of advocating for diversity inside golf, whether it was through his work with the PGA of America as the senior director of diversity & multicultural initiatives or through his own company, The Original Tee, a golf lifestyle brand. Haskins wants to honor the heroes of yesterday who helped break down the challenges Black players faced in golf. Haskins left the PGA of America in 2017, but following the death of George Floyd in May, he was moved to write a letter about his experience in the organization and called for the group to allow more Black voices on the executive and decision-making level.
Haskins, a graduate of Hampton University, was introduced to golf through his music career as a director of artist & repertoire/artist development for both Def Jam Records and Island Records. He would go on to serve as a creative director and player development consultant with the NBA for 14 years, and is now the chief marketing officer for The Professional Collegiate League, a basketball league aimed at providing collegiate players a place to be compensated for their talents while still gaining an education.
Through it all, Haskins has remained committed to improving diversity in golf and bringing attention to some of the sport’s greatest Black pioneers. With The Undefeated’s documentary Tiger Woods: America’s Son set to premiere Sunday on ESPN, Haskins shared with The Undefeated ways he hopes people can become more aware of the Black golfers who came before Woods, and what work still needs to be done to diversify the game.
What got you so passionate about trying to advocate for diversity in golf?
Professionally my jobs were in the entertainment business. I worked for Island Records and Def Jams. My friends and peers were guys like Puffy, Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell. People who were entrepreneurs who started things, and created something out of nothing because they had a vision. I was introduced to golf by a friend and mentor of mine, a guy named Michael Vann, who owned a popular restaurant called The Shark Bar. I started going to Chelsea Piers learning how to play golf and learning how to hit the ball, and I fell in love with it. Then I started reading everything that I could about the game and that’s when I learned about the Black history of golf. I had already been planning parties and holding music showcases, and thought that I would like to create a tournament celebrating the Black history of golf. That’s when I learned that the first golf tee was actually invented by a Black man, and then a couple years later a white guy came out with a different tee, and was marketing it. So I started something called Original Tee and started a tournament called the Original Tee Golf Classic. I had music executives, entertainers, people in the industry who just loved to play golf, and now I have been doing my tournament for 22 years. I have honored Black icons who loved to play golf, everyone from Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Renee Powell, Dr. J, George Gervin, Anthony Anderson and Doug Williams. It showcases all of the wonderful things about Black people’s love for the game and contributions that people don’t get to see.
What was your experience at the PGA of America like?
I was excited about it, going to work in professional golf after everything I had done in golf independently and created on my own. I had every reason to believe that some things that I was committed to would be amplified and I would have a platform to do things on a much larger scale. I couldn’t have been more excited. I moved from Brooklyn to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. I was willing to leave that behind and move on to the next chapter of my life, and I was really enthusiastic and excited to pour myself into everything that I was doing. I quickly saw what some of the challenges were and that was a disappointment, but people have those experiences at all kinds of jobs that weren’t something that was foreign to me. When you are in those kinds of situations, you don’t see those things as being traumatic, you just see them as things that you need to overcome that other people have also endured. I drew strength from those that I looked up to like Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Renee Powell, who were inspiration. I knew that I was a pioneer in the business of golf, so I knew there were things that would come with the territory that I would have to overcome.
What were some of your goals going into the PGA of America?
First and foremost I wanted to do something that lifted the shroud of doubt from the PGA of America and relieve all of those things that are associated with the PGA and Black people, and I wanted to do that on a big stage. I needed a big public display of inclusion from the industry. Charlie Sifford was the one who was instrumental in overturning the Caucasian-only clause, let’s go back and start with him. You see what other sports do for their barrier breaker, like what baseball does for Jackie Robinson? They still idolize Jackie Robinson to make sure his legacy lives on forever. So I said, ‘What can I do to help elevate these people’s profiles so that they are respected and highly regarded in golf the way some pioneers are in other sports?’ So what immediately came to mind was the Hall of Fame, and Presidential Medal of Freedom, which I felt was appropriate for Charlie Sifford, especially given that then-President Barack Obama was a golfer and knew Sifford’s importance to American history and American golf. I thought it would be a big win for the organization and the industry, really. I also suggested having Lee Elder as a starter for the Masters. I walked into the door Day 1 and said these would be huge accomplishments, and help some of the negative stereotypes about golf.
Obviously Lee Elder becoming a starter for the Masters came into fruition after you left PGA of America. What made that happen now?
Golf has multiple governing bodies and Augusta National is the one who decided to make Lee Elder a starter, the PGA didn’t decide to do anything. That was Augusta National’s decision. What made it possible is that it was something I had already previously proposed, so it was somewhat familiar. Then George Floyd happened and set off a whole awareness of racial injustice, and sports was trying to react to that. Then I wrote that open letter which kind of put a spotlight on golf and what are they doing to address racial issues. I got calls from prominent leaders, and I had a great conversation with Jerry Tarde of Golf Digest. We had a very candid conversation, and one of the things that we talked about was Lee Elder being an honorary starter at the Masters. He said that makes sense and asked if he could write about it, so now it was in the public sphere with the No. 1 publication in golf. Gary Player, who is a former golfer from South Africa, got hold of it and proposed it to Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley, and they agreed. They also created a scholarship in Elder’s name with Paine College, which is an HBCU [historically Black college and university] in the area, so they really stepped up in the moment.
What can the PGA of America do to bring more inclusion into golf?
What they need to do is listen a little bit more to the people that they already have relationships with who are Black, meaning the HBCUs. I tried to arrange a meeting for the top coaches to come and talk to our leadership and they blew off the meeting. So what they can do is be a little more receptive to the conversations with the people who are really committed to growing the game amongst Black people, and forge better relationships with people of color so you can react and truly create authentic spaces for them to be able to thrive and have opportunities. It needs to reflect in the leadership. People often talk about Black golfers on tour – let’s talk about Black executives in the industry. You can’t decide who makes it on the tour, but you can decide who gets hired. People have to make it to the PGA Tour competitively to play on the tour, that is not the case when it comes to hiring and recruiting Black executives. Also supporting HBCU golf is key and critical. Most importantly jobs, hiring people who have decision-making power and who control budgets, those are the kind of people you need to be among the thought leadership within the entire sport, not just the PGA of America.
How do you feel about the sport now?
It’s almost parallel to America. The sport is great. I love the sport, it’s the people running the sport that can be unfair. It’s like how do you feel about America with the way that they treat Black people and the police. America is lovely, it’s a land of opportunity and it’s a wonderful place to live, but there are people in America who aren’t so great when it comes to racial justice and equality. It doesn’t mean we don’t love America. I love golf, I want people to play it, I want to continue advocating for the game. Golf is great, it just needs more people in positions that market the game and bring in new thought leadership. Different people marketing the game so they can speak to something other than just thinking of just the white men when marketing the game. It’s like Kanye said, ‘You ain’t have all the answers, Sway!’ They need to bring other people and give other people opportunities to contribute.
Do you think the governing bodies of golf could make it more accessible for Black kids?
Yeah, they could. They have to come up with programs, I actually woke up this morning and saw that Phil Mickelson gave half a million dollars to Jackson State’s golf program, and they don’t even have a golf team. Cameron Champ has given money to Prairie View for their golf program, and what Augusta National did with Paine College. There are still more things that the golf industry can do and players can do, and people who want to see more Black kids with the opportunity to play golf, and help eliminate some of the barriers of entry and expenses, especially for young players.
Are you surprised the rise of Tiger Woods hasn’t led to a rise in Black golfers?
I was inspired by the Tiger Woods era. He inspired a whole movement of people to play golf. It may not have translated to the professional level, but I think that Tiger’s impact is yet to be seen in that area. He probably influenced a generation of parents, so you have Black parents now who have given birth to an up-and-coming player who could make it to the PGA Tour. It could just be a generation behind, but just like my kid, he is 2 years old and he will probably grow up playing golf. When Tiger burst on the scene, it didn’t just open up a plethora of resources. There was inspiration, but there also needs to be resources to support people maturing through the golf ranks.
What will let you know that you have achieved success?
I am already succeeding. I have my own tournament, The Original Tee Classic. I want to continue elevating that to be the best in class to represent the history in golf. You have to understand the importance of tournaments. The Masters and U.S. Open have these great traditions. I created something that has a great tradition for the history of African Americans in golf and I want it to outlive me. Also seeing the impact that I have working at the PGA, seeing Charlie Sifford get the Presidential Medal of Freedom, that blows my mind knowing that my effort helped to make that happen. Seeing Lee Elder get his roses while he is alive, and knowing that I was a critical part in making that happen. Seeing as a result of that HBCUs getting financial support from Augusta National. Those are success, man, and hopefully that is just the beginning of a lot more to come. As long as I am alive, I will keep on advocating.