Youth movement: Marlton Golf Club

A desire to increase inclusion and diversity in the golf industry — with a special focus on youth — drives the African-American owners of Marlton Golf Club.


Marlton Golf Club
Joining forces at Marlton Golf Club with the goal of bringing inclusion and diversity to the game are (from left to right): Craig Kirby, Henry C. Turner Jr., Brian Judd, Jimmy Garvin and Vann B. Jones. Photo by Kea Taylor

Without a doubt, Sage Ware is Marlton Golf Club material.

A ninth-grader who resides on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., Ware had never been exposed to golf until she was introduced to it at Marlton, a public course in Upper Marlboro, Md. “Golf was new to me. I just figured, ‘Why not?’ It gives me hope that I can try new things,” says Ware, who thinks it’s pretty cool to take swings on a golf course and that there’s a clubhouse that offers food. “A lot of kids are enthusiastic about it.”

A lot of adults — including Marlton superintendent Brian Judd — are hoping Ware’s sweet endorsement sweeps the country. The effort to grow and diversify golf, both in terms of its participants and future industry employees, is an ongoing challenge. Statistics indicate that golf participation among non-Caucasians has decreased for three consecutive years. There are forces out there, however, that are trying to do something about it.

A handful of U.S. golf courses are under African-American ownership, and Marlton is one of them. In 2015, Willie Blakeney Jr., Vann B. Jones, Jimmy Garvin and Henry C. Turner Jr. purchased the golf course. Turner understands the task at hand, and although the owners face some financial challenges, their mission remains intact.

“What it means to the four of us is that we have a great responsibility to be successful and that we bring in minorities to experience golf,” Turner says.

GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans champions Marlton’s vision and any initiative that aims to attract all people to golf courses. “Obviously, having golf more representative of what our diverse communities look like in America is beneficial to the sport. It creates an environment of inclusion where everyone can come together to enjoy the terrific benefits that come from playing the game of golf,” Evans says. “Whether it is socializing with friends, exercising, enjoying the great outdoors and all that golf courses can offer in the way of wildlife, beauty, recreation and fun, everyone should be afforded those opportunities.”

Although all are welcome at the facility, African-American youths have become a cornerstone of Marlton’s clientele. Craig Kirby’s nonprofit organization “Golf. My Future. My Game.” taps Marlton as a venue for making golf affordable and accessible to women, millennials and certainly young African-Americans.

And, along the way, Judd hopes they might uncover a future superintendent. “If I can get some kids interested in this job, what a future we have,” says Judd, who is in his first year of GCSAA membership.

Men of principle

Those involved with Marlton share a determination to make golf more inclusive, yet each arrived at that objective in their own unique way.

For much of his life, Kirby was more about politics than golf. He served as youth director for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition, and as political adviser to then-D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. Later, he was special assistant to the White House Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton.

By that time, though, golf had already hooked Kirby. While he was a defensive back on scholarship at Albion (Mich.) College, friends persuaded him to come play golf with them. He was skeptical, mainly because nobody had presented him with such an opportunity before. “I was too embarrassed to tell them that I never played. In grade school, I’d pass by a golf course a minimum of twice a day, but no one thought to share anything about golf with me,” he says. “And I never went to the course, because I didn’t think that was what I was supposed to do.”

After getting acquainted with the sport in college, Kirby succumbed to the bug. “You hit a shot — an occasional miracle — that keeps you coming back,” he says.

Garvin’s introduction to golf came courtesy of a former Major League Baseball All-Star. Chuck Hinton — the last Washington Senators player to bat .300 before the team moved to Texas — was coaching the baseball team at Howard University. Garvin, a pitcher on that team, always wondered where Hinton disappeared early in the morning.

“He was going to play golf,” Garvin says. “I told him I wanted to go with him. I’d never thought about playing golf, but it was such a thrill. As a minority, I thought it was something I could hang my hat on.”

Being a minority is exactly what motivated Turner to become an influence in golf.

“When my wife and I were in the military in the 1990s, we were looking for some land in Mississippi, and a realtor took us to a neighborhood that had a nice golf course,” Turner says. “He said, ‘No, you won’t end up here — not on this golf course.’ Really, he was telling me point-blank that we’re black and wouldn’t step foot on that golf course.”

Fast-forward to two years ago, and Turner, who was interested in business land development, received a call about 162 acres — featuring a golf course — situated in the middle of a community called Marlton. He immediately called Jones and Blakeney. They teamed to purchase Marlton, later adding Garvin as co-owner and general manager. The facility features a driving range, restaurant, sports lounge and entertainment area, with plans in the works for a sports apparel shop.

“It always was in the back of my mind, what happened all those years before,” Turner says. “I may not have been able to get on that golf course in Mississippi in 1995, but now I owned my own golf course less than 15 minutes from the nation’s capital.”

Visions of hope

People like Sondra Williams and her 4-year-old granddaughter, Kylie, represent Marlton’s vision. Williams signed up as a volunteer for “Golf. My Future. My Game.” after Kirby’s dedication to it cemented her belief in the cause. “I’ve seen Craig’s commitment, his enthusiasm. They are reaching young people of color and showing them about the game, this world, early on. A sense of inclusion, belonging, is happening there,” says Williams, who takes Kylie to Marlton’s driving range to hit balls. “It is taking these kids on a different journey — things that translate to all aspects of their lives, like conducting yourself in a kind, courteous manner. Plus, they are learning a demanding game that causes you to step up.”

Achieving inclusion and diversity in golf means numerous entities need to step up — and do it soon and in emphatic ways — says Michael Cooper, Ph.D., an adjunct faculty member in the School of Human Services at Springfield College Tampa Bay.

“The data says that golf is in dire need of more diversity. We’ve seen ebbs and flows in participation for quite a number of years,” says Cooper, who once worked for The First Tee and serves on the Golf 20/20 Diversity Task Force, as does Kirby.

National Golf Foundation statistics show that 4.7 million non-Caucasians (African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics) age 6 and over played at least one round of golf in 2015, down from 5.4 million in 2011. Overall, 24.1 million people age 6 and up played at least one round in 2015, a decrease from 25.7 million six years ago.

Finding ways to change those trends is imperative, says Cooper, and there are positive signs: PGA Junior League Golf totaled 36,000 participants nationwide in 2016, a 300 percent increase from three years earlier. The USGA reports its girls’ and women’s championships continue to see year-over-year gains in entries.

“With the way golf has had some struggles economically, it needs some immediate wins to really win the battle,” Cooper says. “Programs like Craig’s are bringing in people now. We need to identify and locate programs like Craig’s, and there are hundreds of them. They have nuances that make them different, but have the same idea — working with minorities and bringing people into the game.

“If the golf industry would band together and partner with these grassroots organizations, it (inclusion and diversity) would happen quicker. I am optimistic we can shift the demographics. If that happens, golf wins. Everybody wins.”

World Golf Foundation CEO Steve Mona views Kirby as an ally who’s making a difference. “He’s an example of somebody out in the field doing something directly to create diversity in the game, and that’s not easy to do,” Mona says.

Covering all the bases

At Marlton, Kirby enrolls about 80 youths in 12-week classes. In those classes, participants learn everything from how to putt to what goes on in the pro shop to how soil erosion is tackled.

The fact that the facility has African-American owners is critical. “To be able to bring them to a place where the owners look like them is really powerful,” says Kirby. “It takes away the intimidation. To be able to give them a level of comfort and see that these people who look like them care about their growth is wonderful.” Kirby says more than 300 youths have participated.

Still, it hasn’t been easy at Marlton. Although it has received two six-figure bonds from the state and county to expand golf operations and has also partnered with the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore to be its affiliated golf course (the university offers a golf management program), financial obstacles have tested ownership. Fulfillment of wages owed to current and former employees and vendors is being addressed, says Garvin, who adds, “Our goal is to make everybody whole.”

As Marlton and the entire golf industry continues to pursue inclusion and diversity, it probably doesn’t hurt that they have Everett Pearson on their side. In Maryland, they know him as Rev. Everett Pearson. The pastor at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Forestville, Md., Pearson has parishioners who partake in the “Golf. My Future. My Game.” program at Marlton, and he approves of what’s being preached there. “I’ve seen the kids’ smiles — those big, toothy grins,” Pearson says. “What they are doing there is a great idea. They are showing that anything is possible if you put your heart and soul into it.”

He said, she said

Superintendent Brian Judd never doubts his wife’s powers of perception.

So, when he was trying to decide whether to leave a job after 24 years for another opportunity, he brought his wife, Barbara, along for his interview with the four co-owners of Marlton Golf Club. She wasn’t just along for the ride — she sat in on the interview.

“We put all of our cards on the table. She listened. She can pinpoint someone’s character in a matter of seconds,” says Judd. “From what I heard, I wanted to take the job right there.”

Barbara agreed. “We thought they had a good plan, good focus, and a focus on giving back to the community through golf, mentoring kids — just a whole list of things they wanted to do to help,” Brian Judd says. “These owners are really doing something special.”

Judd, 53, got the job, and left Geneva Farms Golf Course in Harford County, Md., after more than two decades there. At Marlton, he replaced 30-year GCSAA member Paul Masimore, CGCS, whom Judd considers a rock star for what he accomplished. “I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention Paul. Paul and his crew worked their tails off to pull this course together,” Judd says.

A former air traffic controller and helicopter mechanic in the Army, Judd was introduced to Geneva Farms when he met then-superintendent Charles Priestley, who coaxed Judd into coming to work for him. Judd combined it with studying turfgrass at Rutgers University before he would eventually replace Priestley. For Judd, departing Geneva Farms wasn’t easy. “Our late owner there, Jack Davis, was a one-in-a-million guy. He was good to the whole county,” Judd says.

Now, Judd is being lauded for what he has done in 11 months at Marlton. “He’s a great mechanic, so we get two-for-one,” says Marlton co-owner Jimmy Garvin. “His role is to make sure we’re accessible and playable. We’ve got to get him the resources to get the job done.”

Even if they don’t, chances are good that Judd will still find a way — like the time he devised a divot repair tool, which he made before being deployed to Bosnia. “We didn’t have video games when I was a kid. If we wanted something, we made it or did without,” Judd says. “If you have a need and a creative spark, you go with it.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.