United Travel Credits Giving HBCU Golf Programs Wings, Expanding Range of Traditionally Underfunded Teams

By Helen Ross, PGA Tour, Special to NNPA Newswire

James Levister thought it would be a step.

Certainly, he was an avid golfer. A 4 handicap at its best, really.

But when he started his 3-year-old daughter, Mesha, playing golf, he realized that she would eventually tire of the game.

However, he was wrong. His daughter loved playing with her father at the weekend – she finally beat him when she was 16 and never lost again – and thrived on the challenge of the game.

“It was our thing,” Mesha said. “I liked that it was hard, and I kept playing because it was hard. But for me, when I was little, it was about being with him and doing something different.”

She played golf and varsity basketball four years at her high school in Florida, received scholarship offers in both sports, and wanted to move on. Eventually, she had to choose between the two.

“I told my dad that I prefer to play golf because there are less people like me playing golf,” said Levester, who is African American. “I wanted to be a coach… I felt like I had something to bring to the game. I didn’t understand what it was then when I was 17 years old.”

On Wednesday, 23 years later, and on her 41st birthday, no less, Levister was at Memorial Park Golf Course to watch three of the players she coaches at Prairie View A&M University play in the pro-am at the Cadence Bank Houston Open.

Christian Latham, who is working on his master’s degree in architecture, and seniors Rondarius Walters and Taylor Harvey, a member of the women’s team, would play with Phil Griffith, who is the vice president of operations for the Houston United Airlines hub. , and PGA. A TRIP for Stewart Cink and Matthew NeSmith.

“I hope they get an out-of-this-world experience that they’ve never had – maybe,” Levister said. “Or that it opens their eyes to the maximum potential and drives them to be what they want to be.”

The pairing with Griffith is no accident. United Airlines, in partnership with the PGA TOUR, has earmarked more than $500,000 in grants for 55 golf teams at HBCUs like Prairie View.

Each school receives $10,000 in travel credits to support travel and recruiting budgets and could help more than 250 student-athletes compete in places they’ve never been.

United and the TOUR recently announced a multi-year extension to their official marketing relationship, extending the annual commitment to HBCUs through 2025.

Griffith also attended a clinic earlier this week where golfers from another HBCU in the Houston area, Texas Southern, worked with youngsters from the First Tee. He is excited about the impact of the grants.

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“I’m really impressed with these kids and when I look at where I was then, if you don’t know something is there, yeah, it’s hard for you to aspire to,” Griffith said. . “And a lot of the things these kids are doing today, I didn’t have any aspirations for them because I didn’t know.

“I think as we continue this program,” he said, “just opening their eyes and showing them valuable and effective ways to get there, it’s going to be a lot of fun over the years. That’s what I hope.”

All there together

Levister coaches the men’s and women’s teams at Prairie View A&M, which is the second oldest public university in Texas.

She has also done double duty at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), and Lincoln University in Jefferson, Missouri.

“It’s interesting to see the dynamic and be able to create a culture here together and make sure everyone is rooting for everyone because we’re all one team,” Levester said.

Forging something of an unconventional path is second nature to Levister. When the women’s team at her college in Florida disbanded, NCCU recruited her to play on the men’s team.

She played Number 1 and was the team’s most valuable player as a freshman, and was also awarded the Central Athletic Association’s Rookie of the Year.

After 9/11, Levister left school and went home to Wash., D.C. She became the first African American to win the 2004 Virginia Women’s Amateur and was named the state’s female golfer of the year. She took advantage in 2006 and joined the Symetra Tour in 2010.

Life on the road, however, could be lonely, especially for a young woman who was the only African American who often joined an event.

“I’m still a golfer, regardless,” Levester said firmly. And she can’t bear the memory of being pulled over by a New York cop.

“The cop came over and asked the other player in the car, who was a white female, instead of asking the usual subject, he asked the young woman in the passenger seat, ‘Are you okay?’” Levister said.

“So, for me, that was a traumatic experience for me…But he let me go. So, he actually pulled me over just to check on the person in the car.”

After Levister’s father died in 2014, she decided to quit the tour.

She still competed, winning the 2015 EP Women’s Pro Championship, but began to focus on teaching. She joined the NCCU staff in 2020 and helped start the women’s program before going to Prairie View A&M.

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She’s only been there about a month, but she already feels the acceptance of her players, who share her goal of returning the Panthers to dominance in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

And she wants to make it easier for others to follow her path.

“I’m definitely all about how I approach life now,” Levester said. “I just want to be a good person, do the right thing and break glass ceilings for the next people after me so they don’t have it as hard as I had.”

To keep the program alive

When Prairie View A&M lost its golf coach last fall, Latham had just graduated magna cum laude, finishing his architecture degree in three years, and began working on his master’s.

But the team needed a coach, and Latham stepped up in a big way. “He held the fort down last year for both teams,” Levister said.

Like Levister, Latham was a multi-sport athlete who started playing golf because of his dad. But his favorite sport was baseball – his grandfather Cliff Johnson played 20 years in the major leagues, including two World Series with the New York Yankees.

By the time Latham reached high school, however, he had grown tired of basketball. He suffered racist taunts, often from adults and coaches who lied to him.

“I lost my passion for baseball,” he said. “I didn’t want to play anymore. So that’s what really stuck me in golf because it’s like at the end of the day, nobody can say anything about me as long as I’m shooting a score that I want to shoot.

“That’s how I really got into it. And I focus on golf now. That’s what made me.”

The summer before entering high school in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston, Latham spent every day at the golf course.

He shot 111 in his first tournament, but by the end of the summer, he broke 80 for the first time.

With continued improvement, he began to consider playing in college and verbally committed to Prairie View A&M after his sophomore year.

In addition to studying for his master’s, where he is designing a practice facility for the golf team as a class project, and hitting balls on the range, Latham has practical experience by working with an architectural firm several days a week.

He also has a 14-month-old son named Kai — who is full of “joy and happiness,” Latham said — half the week.

“He’s like my little twin,” Latham said. “So now I got him a plastic set of golf clubs and it’s nice to see him trying to play with that.”

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But just because he’s working on his master’s degree doesn’t mean Latham is giving up on his dream of playing golf professionally.

He has already played in one APGA event and hopes to play well enough this year to finish in the top five collegiate rankings, which would give him scholarship access to tour events for the rest of the 2023 season.

“I’m not going to stop that goal and stop that dream,” he said.

“I’m still going to work hard this semester to try to get to that level or continue to build up to where I should be.”

Give players wings

With the travel credits provided by United, schools like Prairie View A&M will be able to compete in high-profile events that might otherwise have gone away – literally.

Levister, who once rode 11 hours from Durham, NC to Port St. Lucie, Florida, for a college competition, has already started putting those credits to work.

“Even in the short time I’ve been here, just being able to access the Houston airport and fly has saved us a lot of time and money,” she said.

“It really helps reduce travel costs because now we can use those funds to give them a better experience as a student-athlete and college golfer.”

Latham remembers a 15-hour bus ride from Houston to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, where the Panthers played in the 2021 PGA Works Championship at TPC Sawgrass — and won.

With two days of travel each way and the tournament itself, the Black Panthers were gone nine days.

That’s why Latham decided on Wednesday to thank Griffith for United’s support. It has been a big help that United and organizations like the PGA TOUR are seeing value in HBCU golf.

“I would say it makes us feel more comfortable when we don’t have to travel,” Latham said, “it was agonizing for 14 hours, 16 hours, when we could have a two-hour plane ride to do. And it affects the team.”

“I mean, we’ve had times where people didn’t even have enough seats on the bus,” he continued, “and we’re all kind of locked up or having to make multiple trips to get somewhere. achieve because we must. You don’t have enough room to bring everyone.”

“So, it means a lot. It gives us the opportunity to try to feel more like a sports program because we see other sports programs traveling like that. And we never had to do it.”


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