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Rocket Mortgage Classic could provide boost to golf diversity

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 6/27/2019 John Wisely

Mahdia Davis had never set foot on a golf course before her grandmother took her to Wednesday's pro-am at the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club.

"She just wanted me to experience what it's like," said Mahdia, 11, of Harper Woods.

It was a new experience for her grandmother, too. Leona Claxton, 67, of Detroit, lives in Sherwood Forest, just a pitch and a putt from the club, but she'd never been inside its gates before.

a man that is standing in the grass © Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

"I just wanted her to get a feel for what it's like," Claxton said. "It's beautiful."

a man that is standing in the grass: Mahdia Davis, 11, of Harper Woods, made her first visit to a golf course Wednesday June 26, 2019 when her grandmother, Leona Claxton, took her to the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club. © John Wisely - Detroit Free Press Mahdia Davis, 11, of Harper Woods, made her first visit to a golf course Wednesday June 26, 2019 when her grandmother, Leona Claxton, took her to the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club.

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Mahdia got to walk the grounds, see the pros and their amateur partners, and even swing a club at an event put on by one of the tournament sponsors.

She's not convinced yet that she'll take up the game, but she enjoyed her day on the links.

Madhia is the kind of person that youth golf groups in metro Detroit are reaching out to in an effort to establish the next generation of golfers. And as the PGA tries to reach younger and more diverse players, that outreach is becoming more important than ever. 

This week's field at the Rocket Mortgage Classic includes limited African American participation, save for the likes of Harold Varner III and Cameron Champ, who is of mixed race descent. It's a problem the PGA has been trying to tackle head-on for years.

“The biggest challenge is, I think, the challenge that everyone in golf shares, is how do you grow this game?” Pete Bevacqua, former CEO of PGA of America, said in August, according to Reuters. “How do you make this game more accessible and more diverse?

“How do you bring more women into the game? How do you bring more minorities into the game?" 

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Rocket Mortgage Classic provides a boost

For Detroit's part, the Rocket Mortgage Classic's charity arm is partnering with groups that help kids learn not only golf, but the life skills that come along with it.

The First Tee of Greater Detroit and Midnight Golf are both groups that teach the game, offer mentoring, scholarships, networking and other help. A scholarship program for caddies at the host site, Detroit Golf Club, also is a recipient of charity proceeds from the tournament.

a woman wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Renee Fluker, founder and president of Midnight Golf Program, photographed on Monday, July 4, 2016. © Salwan Georges, Detroit Free Press Renee Fluker, founder and president of Midnight Golf Program, photographed on Monday, July 4, 2016.

Jason Langwell, executive director of the tournament, said the groups weren't chosen specifically to create more golfers, but that's a side benefit of introducing young people to the game.

"This is as much about life skills as it is golf skills," he said.

Olajuwon Ajanaku grew up in Atlanta and didn't start playing golf until a family member introduced him the sport at age 6. He now lives in Detroit.

"I swung and missed and I've been hooked ever since," Ajanaku said.

Ajanaku started playing golf and eventually got in the First Tee program in Atlanta, where he met not only teachers but mentors. His game was good enough to earn a golf scholarship to Morehouse College, a historically black college where he played on a team that won a national championship in 2010.

He played a couple years on some regional tours in the Southeast, but couldn't quite make it to the PGA Tour, though at 28, he still has dreams. 

For now, he works in commercial finance, plays to a scratch handicap at TPC Dearborn, and he teaches the game to kids through a First Tee program at Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods. 

"You have a lot of kids who never see golf," he said. "They see basketball and football and baseball, but not golf."

Ajanku said he's trying to make the game more attractive to young people who might be more inclined to watch and play other sports.

"I tell them, you can play golf," he said. "NBA players play golf. NFL players play golf."

Michael Jordan has long loved the game and Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry does, too, which helps expose young people to it.

"He's making golf cool again," Ajanku said.

Ajanku teaches kids the basics like grip, stance and swing, but also etiquette and life skills as well. Ajanku said his golf game has helped advance his career in finance through networking and other business advantages it offers.

"Through golf," he said, "I've been able to get into places that other people can't get to."

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The benefits of golf outreach

Renee Fluker started Midnight Golf 18 years ago, teaching both golf and life skills. The initial class had about 17 kids, but through the years more than 2,500 kids have gone through it.

"Our goal is to get kids to college," she said.

The group has grown and now has nine staffers, including one who follows the students through their college careers, helping them navigate school and finances to make sure they get through.

"We have over 1,200 applicants for 250 slots," Fluker said.

Applicants are interviewed in person and evaluated before being selected. 

She said the program will receive money from the Rocket Mortgage Classic when it's over, but the benefits have already started. Her group was invited to a celebrity gathering at the tournament this week with a chance to raise awareness of what they do.

"The have really, really taken care of Midnight Golf," Fluker said. 

Langwell said that golf's popularity exploded when Tiger Woods' career peaked and has faded some as his career has declined. But a new generation of tour pros is helping to grow the game again.

He hopes that the Rocket Mortgage Classic can help as well. Langwell grew up attending the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, but kids under 16 or so haven't really seen the PGA Tour in Michigan until now.

Brody VanDrew, 8, of Port Huron and his twin brother, Ryder, play golf together in the Blue Water Area Junior Golf Tour. They attended the tournament with their dad, Brett, who introduced them to the game. 

They liked watching the pros play the game the love, but they also were happy to see Detroit Red Wings players  Jimmy Howard and Danny Dekeyser.

a group of people watching a baseball player holding a bat: Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard signs autographs for young golf fans at the Rocket Mortgage Classic golf tournament at the Detroit Golf Club on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. © John Wisely - Detroit Free Press Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard signs autographs for young golf fans at the Rocket Mortgage Classic golf tournament at the Detroit Golf Club on Wednesday, June 26, 2019.

"I like my driving and my chipping," Brody said. 

His brother likes the mental aspects of the game.

"I like it because it's mentally challenging and it's really strategic," Ryder VanDrew said.

Their father, Brett VanDrew, plays off a 10 handicap at Port Huron Golf Club. He was introduced to the game by his brother and his father, and it was something he wanted to pass along to his children.

"I'm glad that they got into something that they can enjoy for their entire lives," he said.

Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or jwisely@freepress.com. On Twitter @jwisely

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Rocket Mortgage Classic could provide boost to golf diversity

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