Envisioning a diverse future for golf

The Careers in Golf program opens up career paths for underrepresented communities.


MOU signing between The Ohio State University and Wilberforce University
A new partnership between Wilberforce University and The Ohio State University will help Wilberforce Students earn an academic certificate in agronomy, which can be applied to their existing degree. (L-R) Golf. MyFuture. MyGame CEO Craig Kirby, Wilberforce University Men's and Women's Golf Coach William Ware, Ohio State University Horticulture and Crop Science Dept. Chair Doug Karcher and Mark Jordan, CGCS, at the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between WU and OSU. Photos courtesy of Mark Jordan.

In 1982, a game of golf changed Craig Kirby’s life forever.

“I was a sophomore at Albion College in Michigan. I was sitting in my living room, and three friends came down the stairs and asked if I wanted to join them for a game of golf,” Kirby says. “I’d never played before in my life, but I was too embarrassed to say I hadn’t.”

Kirby did well enough in his first game that his friends invited him back the following week, when a chance encounter with another acquaintance resulted in a summer job. Kirby says the experience taught him a valuable lesson: To get ahead, you have to go where the opportunities are, and the conversations that happen on a golf course can sometimes be the first step.

“The sport of golf offers a passport to the world of business,” Kirby says. “Over a lifetime of experience, you can have unparalleled opportunities.”

Kirby became passionate about sharing the possibilities golf offered — both as a sport and as a career field — with underrepresented communities, eventually creating the nonprofit Golf. My Future. My Game. to foster diversity in golf among all ages. “Those kids fall in love with it and realize so many other components come along with it,” Kirby says. “They might never have known some of these careers existed otherwise.”

Much like Kirby’s fateful encounter with the sport in college, another chance meeting at National Golf Day in 2017 with Mark Jordan, CGCS, director of golf course operations at Westfield Country Club in Westfield Center, Ohio, created another opportunity with wide-reaching, fruitful results.

“After we met, over the next few years we sat and talked about how we could make a difference,” Kirby says. “One of them was the Careers in Golf internship program at Westfield Country Club.”

It proved to be an idea that would reach far beyond Westfield’s 36 holes and all the way to the campuses of two of Ohio’s most prominent educational institutions: The Ohio State University and Wilberforce University.

A hands-on learning experience

Jordan, a 36-year GCSAA member and immediate past president, says it was important from the start that the Careers in Golf program — an internship experience that exposes participants to every level of behind-the-scenes operations at Westfield CC — be a scalable program with long-term sustainability.

“We wanted to develop something actionable. A lot of people just talk about doing things like this, and we didn’t want to be those people,” Jordan says.

Together, Jordan and Kirby developed a curriculum that allowed students participating in the program to get firsthand experience with course design, course maintenance, tournament prep, pro shop work and the history of the sport.

“An intern who comes in gets full exposure to all the operations, from superintendent to pro,” Jordan says. “You’re not going to work in the cart barn all summer or just on course maintenance.”

The program also includes a visit to Ohio’s Clearview Golf Club, the first club in the U.S. built, owned and operated by an African American. Coincidentally, William J. Powell — who designed, constructed and ran Clearview Golf Club and was the patriarch of the Powell family, recipients of GCSAA’s 2019 Old Tom Morris Award — played golf for Wilberforce, the country’s first private HBCU.

Kirby and Jordan wanted to develop partnerships with and recruit students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as well as students from predominantly white institutions, so that the educational experience was cultural as well as professional.

“What happens at these universities are different cultures,” Kirby says. “They’re learning about each other’s strife and struggles and collectively learning about a game and an industry.”

Kirby and Jordan celebrate the successful signing of the memorandum of understanding between OSU and WU.

Craig Kirby and Mark Jordan

There was just one problem: HBCUs don’t currently offer agronomy programs that could transfer students’ internships at Westfield into applicable college credit. Westfield interns from an HBCU wanting to pursue a career in the industry would have to go elsewhere to earn a related degree.

“Those students elected to choose a career in golf, and we didn’t want them to have to leave the university to do that,” Jordan says. “Craig had connections at Wilberforce University, and I had connections at Ohio State, so we used those to try to fill that gap.”

Jordan spoke with Doug Karcher, Ph.D., the recently installed chair of OSU’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, about forming a partnership with Wilberforce to help those students pursue education and careers in turf management and turf science. Kirby, in turn, spoke with then-Wilberforce provost Johnny Jones.

“I met with Mark before I officially started at OSU to discuss how we can get these students a formal education in turf management,” Karcher says. “We brainstormed a little bit and decided the quickest way would be through our existing online courses for certificates at Ohio State.”

These early conversations eventually resulted in a dual degree and certificate program officially recognized in a memorandum of understanding between Wilberforce and OSU on June 28. Starting this fall, Wilberforce students can take OSU-offered courses in turfgrass management, golf management and the history of golf courses. Credits for those courses — as well as involvement in the Careers in Golf program — can be applied toward an academic certificate in agronomy accompanying their Wilberforce degree.

“We envision a great future with this collaboration and commitment,” Emily Lewis, interim provost at Wilberforce, says. “Our students will learn this is not just about the game itself, but an expansion of meaningful engagement and connection for all of our students in the WU school of professional development."

The present and future of Careers in Golf

Now entering its third year, the Careers in Golf program has had eight interns come through with varying degrees of previous golf experience.

“We’re refining it each year,” Jordan says. “If they don’t choose a career in golf, this internship does still expose them to the business of golf. A lot of business gets conducted on the golf course, and no matter what career you’re in, that element is an important part of business.”

One intern who plans to pursue a career in the industry is Colline Ajidra, a Livingston University student from Uganda who was part of his school’s golf team.

“This program has shown me the opportunities that are available and helped me find out what I’m interested in,” Ajidra says.

For now, Ajidra wants to pursue teaching the sport. He says he plans to continue playing professional golf and eventually will share what he’s learned with others who want to learn how to play. “I love the game, I’m not yet at my peak, but I’m learning a lot right now. I want a career where I can teach and play a little competitively,” he says.

Ajidra says his experience has given him a newfound respect for course operations behind the scenes. “It’s giving me a deeper understanding of the sport and all the things that need to be in place in order for me to be able to play,” Ajidra says. “It takes a lot of effort and time. I hadn’t been fully exposed to that part before.”

Jordan says he knows growing a successful program and recruiting new turf professionals from it is a long journey, but he’s encouraged by having ambassadors like Ajidra who take away valuable lessons they can share with others.

“The template for this program is a lot of heart and brain,” Jordan says. “You have to have a long-term perspective. If the interns may not at first be interested in golf, you think it’s not producing results, but it is. We know the time and energy and effort will be well worth it.”

OSU WU signing
Wilberforce University president Elfred Anthony Pinkard and The Ohio State University president Kristina M. Johnson sign the memorandum of understanding alongside the schools' mascots.

Pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion

Jordan says he hopes initiatives like the Careers in Golf program can spread to other clubs and universities to help address a shortage of leaders and labor in the golf industry.

“This is another way of expanding that talent pool,” he says. “We’re introducing people to careers in golf, but it also helps individuals who don’t even have golf on their radar. 

Currently the Careers in Golf program has relationships with several HBCUs and other four-year institutions, including Howard University and Kirby’s alma mater, Albion College. Kirby says he hopes the partnership between Ohio State and Wilberforce will be the start of some exciting momentum.

“The MOU signing between Ohio State and Wilberforce will hopefully continue to pique outside interest,” Kirby says. “Once we have that interest built, who knows what we’ll see differently on golf courses? People who’ve never thought about golf can bring changes to a game that needs it.”

Another long-term hope is that the expanding talent pool will be more diverse than it’s been historically. Jordan notes Kirby’s introduction to the sport as an example that many underrepresented communities don’t even know the opportunities golf — as a sport and an industry — can offer. 

“I can do this because, let’s face it, golf is still seen as a white person’s sport,” Jordan says. “Craig never would have gotten involved in golf if his housemates hadn’t asked him all those years ago.”

Kirby agrees, noting the next great industry leader could come from anywhere, but they’ll never be able to step up if they aren’t exposed to the possibilities.

“They can get into an industry they knew nothing about, and now they want to take courses in turf science, soil and agronomy,” Kirby says. “Next thing you know, they may form a specialty in a certain type of turf-based disease, and now they travel the world sharing that expertise. They’d never have found it had it not been for Careers in Golf.”

Abby Olcese is GCM’s online editor.