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Eastside Golf founders challenge golf industry’s lack of diversity, commit to boost Black golfers


Are you certain you need to lead with that?

Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper heard that remark greater than as soon as in regards to the Eastside Golf brand. The former Morehouse golf teammates selected the dynamic depiction of a Black man swinging a golf membership whereas sporting a gold chain, denims and grey sweatshirt.

The connection between the brand and their message couldn’t be extra clear. That’s what made some critics uneasy.

“I made it so the younger generation has representation of what’s possible,” Ajanaku mentioned. “They’ve never seen a Black man or man of color swing a golf club but have a chain on and it looks fly. That’s something that’s never talked about because in the golf world. It’s either extreme: You’re either Tiger Woods … or you’re The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

Ajanaku, Eastside Golf’s founder, first dreamt up the brand in May 2019 as a private brand for his golf bag, however Cooper, now co-founder, thought it had extra potential. He inspired Ajanaku to show it on a T-shirt. Ajanaku listened and took the T-shirt on a take a look at run round Detroit the place he labored as a gross sales supervisor in industrial finance. That afternoon dozens of strangers stopped him on the road and requested the place he discovered the shirt.

Merchandise from Eastside Golf founders Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper. (Logger Creative)

In the three years since that one T-shirt debuted in Detroit, Eastside Golf has exploded. It at present has partnerships with the National Basketball Players Association and merchandise is offered internationally. Its assortment contains sweatshirts, ball markers, membership covers and socks and is available for purchase on its website. Eastside Golf’s instant success is basically due to how the brand concurrently challenges and affirms golf — that’s the impression Ajanaku and Cooper needed within the white, prosperous, male-dominated sport.

“It’s exactly what we want to lead with because that logo itself is so disruptive,” Cooper mentioned. “It’s disruptive in the golf world because the golf world is so conservative, but is (the logo) really breaking any rules? We’ve been taught that (what’s displayed on the logo) is not okay. But why isn’t that okay? Is it because it’s a Black man? Is it because he has a chain? What rules is he breaking for you to say, ‘That’s not okay?’”

The mission of Eastside Golf is promote Black golfers in an trade that has traditionally discriminated primarily based on race. For Ajanaku and Cooper to have careers in golf and rise to their present platform, vital forces have been at work to invite, embody and lead them to pursue paths within the sport typically riddled with exclusion.

They plan to use their success to re-create these alternatives on a bigger scale.

Eastside Golf co-founders Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper in 2010 at Morehouse. (Earl Cooper)

Olajuwon Ajanaku’s journey

Ajanaku, now 31, grew up on the Eastside of Atlanta, Georgia, close to East Lake Golf Club and was the primary in his household to play golf. He rapidly fell in love with the sport, however as the one Black child on public programs throughout Atlanta, in AJGA occasions and First Tee applications, he felt a void no quantity of success on the course might fill.

His mom labored two or three jobs to assist pay for golf and his father wasn’t current in his life across the time Ajanaku began highschool. As a outcome, his dad and mom hardly ever attended tournaments. He felt a chasm between his expertise of the sport and that of his white counterparts. The lack of Black associates and stress his involvement in golf placed on his mom might have been sufficient to give up and pursue basketball like his associates, however Ajanaku was impressed by alternative the sport promised.

Golf supplied him with mentorship. On programs round Atlanta, he met males from totally different careers and backgrounds and realized about their lives. They confirmed Ajanaku the doorways golf opened — a profit Ajanaku mentioned ought to be obtainable regardless of background, race or financial standing.

“The story is golf is for everybody and golf can be used as a tool,” Ajanaku mentioned. “Golf doesn’t have to be seen as one type of way. … It can be played however you see fit with respect to the game, but you can still be yourself and play the game of golf.”

It was troublesome and lonely at instances, however Ajanaku saved enjoying. He performed at Morehouse the place he met Cooper and pursued knowledgeable golf profession following commencement in 2012. After two years of sacrifice and enjoying on small excursions just like the APGA, he had the “Where is this going?” speak together with his mother. He give up pursuing knowledgeable golf profession, however utilizing his connections from golf, discovered a job in finance and moved to Detroit.

Eastside Golf founders Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper. (Benni Black)

Earl Cooper’s journey

Cooper, 31, started enjoying golf at age 6 after being launched to the sport by a household pal in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. His junior golf profession was promising. At 13, he gained locals and regionals for Drive, Chip, Putt and positioned second at nationals. Like Ajanaku, nonetheless, he was at all times the only Black younger man on the course. That modified when he attended Morehouse.

After commencement in 2011, Cooper enrolled within the PGA of America’s Post Graduate Program. The program, now not energetic, supported contributors from various backgrounds who’ve accomplished customary necessities on the trail to PGA Membership by paying for Level 1 instruction. Cooper accomplished the seven-week program in 2011 and was licensed as a PGA skilled in 2014, in accordance to PGA of America data.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I wouldn’t be here today. … I wouldn’t have been able to do any of these things if wasn’t for this on-board process where the PGA gave me a leg up,” Cooper mentioned.

After incomes PGA Membership, he broke obstacles as the primary Black golf professional at Detroit Golf Club in 2012. In 2014, he turned the primary Black golf professional at Wilmington Country Club the place he used to caddie. He as soon as even gave a lesson to then Vice President Joe Biden. As a instructing professional, Cooper created his personal instructing academy in Union League, Pennsylvania, Earl Cooper Golf in 2016. In 2021, Cooper returned to Golf Digest’s “Most talented young instructors in golf” list.

Despite his love of golf and success not solely as a Black man within the trade, however as a instructing professional usually, Cooper left within the trade in 2016 for the Wilmington mayor’s workplace for a number of causes, however probably the most obvious was he felt restricted in golf as a result of of his pores and skin colour.

“I was successful (in the golf industry), but at the same time, I wasn’t myself fully,” Cooper mentioned. “I was able to get into these high end country clubs and meet a lot of great people and experience a lot of cool things but at the same time, I couldn’t be my true authentic self. … I experienced things I enjoyed, but at the same time I could never bring my friends with me.”

In the mayor’s workplace, he labored as a neighborhood referral specialist for 4 years, centered on private and non-private partnerships. Cooper was content material working a job with impression and utilizing his ties with firms from his time in golf to facilitate programming.

That modified in 2019 when Ajanaku requested Cooper for recommendation on his brand.

Earl Cooper, co-founder of Eastside Golf, poses with former Vice President Joe Biden at when Cooper labored as a golf professional at Wilmington Country Club. (Earl Cooper)

The thought takes off

After seeing the impression his T-shirt with Eastside Golf’s brand had in Detroit, Ajanaku began an LLC for Eastside Golf copyrighting the brand and identify in June 2019. Five months later, he stocked a number of objects like sweatshirts, socks, hats and T-shirts on the market on-line. He offered out. Three instances.

Seeing success in small doses, Ajanaku deliberate to take the gathering of Eastside Golf merchandise to the 2020 PGA Show in Orlando, in January. He contacted Cooper for concepts and to come alongside, however Cooper was hesitant. Like Ajanaku, Cooper liked how Eastside Golf challenged the frequent conception of a golfer as white and prosperous, however as a result of of the lack of acceptance he personally skilled within the trade, he didn’t anticipate the golf neighborhood on the PGA Show to go for it.

Thankfully, Cooper was improper. Eastside Golf was an prompt success on the PGA Show.

“We got approached by older white women to older white men to young Black boys and young Black girls who want to take pictures with us,” Ajanaku mentioned. “You know, everybody has something to say, whether it was something positive or negative, it was mostly positive, but it demands a reaction and that’s what we liked about it.”

Among the enterprise playing cards Ajanaku and Cooper collected on the present was one from a Japanese boutique which purchased 25 sweatshirts. When the boutique offered out in 24 hours, Ajanaku mentioned it got here again with a $15,000 buy order. Not solely was Eastside Golf successful domestically, it was selecting up steam internationally.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Merchandise from Eastside Golf founders Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper. (Logger Creative)

Ajanaku was laid off from his job in Detroit as layoffs swept throughout the nation. His layoff served as an indication. Coming off the thrill of the PGA Show, he went all in on Eastside Golf. He dipped into his financial savings, took out cash from his 401K, offered his Bitcoin and obtained $10,000 from an investor in Detroit.

Since Ajanaku went all in, he and Cooper really feel like they’ve been strapped to a rocket. Now each full-time with Eastside Golf, Ajanaku and Cooper mentioned as of April 2021 the corporate is valued at 800 instances the preliminary funding. The model is even surfacing in different sports activities circles by way of its NBPA partnership. NBA star Chris Paul even wore one of Eastside Golf’s sweatshirts within the current HBO documentary, “The Day Sports Stood Still.” The co-founders insists they’re not paying Paul or anybody to put on their merchandise. Their objective relatively isn’t to construct publicity, it’s to encourage change.

“We’re not here to make golf cool,” Ajanaku mentioned. “The thing is, we’re already cool, we’re just bringing it into a space and being ourselves and that’s what you have to do to be authentic. … I’m about bringing who I am outside of the golf course onto the golf course.”

Inspiring change: The subsequent steps

While Eastside Golf hopes to draw Black gamers to the sport by way of its messages of authenticity and inclusion, its long-term objective is to create a non-profit comparable to the now dissolved PGA of America Post Graduate Program. This program, nonetheless, will deal with advancing Black people into the trade.

While Cooper credit his golf profession to the Post Graduate Program, he believes this system was “the pipeline” to carry non-white candidates to membership and its termination was dangerous to the range the trade pledges to worth. He mentioned this system served as an “on-board ramp” to assist racially various candidates entry the trade that may be so unique alongside the traces of race, intercourse and socioeconomic standing. Without this system, he mentioned many non-white candidates are restricted as a result of of value. He mentioned the PGA of America beforehand paying for Level 1 boosted various candidates from decrease socioeconomic standings on route to PGA Membership.

“I think that the PGA of America has to accept the fact that they need to help out African Americans because white folks were given a 50-year head start (in the sport.) We do need a leg up,” Cooper mentioned. “We do need an on-board ramp. We do need an opportunity that’s not necessarily given to our counterparts because my grandfather didn’t have the opportunity to teach me to be a PGA professional and lead me to the opportunity. Your grandfather did.”

Sandy Cross, Chief People Officer for the PGA of America, advised Golfweek the PGA of America had two applications centered on help with PGA Membership: the PGA Professional Golf Management Accelerated Program, which started in 2008 and was open for all however designed for non-white golfers, and PGA of America Post Graduate Program, which started in 2005 and was open to all demographics. Both have been discontinued.

Cross, who oversees Human Resources and Diversity & Inclusion, mentioned neither of the applications have been particularly geared towards non-white golfers pursuing PGA of America membership, however relatively open to all demographics due to the Internal Revenue Service’s personal inurement legal guidelines the PGA of America should comply with due to its tax exempt standing. Cross mentioned personal inurement legal guidelines prohibit financially benefiting one sub-group of PGA Membership over one other. She mentioned the identical idea is seen within the requirement to provide their retirement program for PGA Members, Golf Retirement Plus, to all trade professionals.

“At the time of these programs, we were … providing some level of housing, we were providing jobs at our own PGA golf club, there were some things we were doing,” Cross mentioned. “We were paying for some things out of our HR budget. … A lot of that was not kosher from an inurement perspective so that’s one of the reasons the (Post Graduate) program got shelved.”

Cross mentioned many of the candidates left the now dissolved applications after Level 1 “due to lack of financial support.”

The Eastside Golf brand from founders Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper. (Logger Creative)

According to figures supplied to Golfweek by the PGA of America, 16 Black people participated within the PGM Accelerated Program. Five are at present Class A Members. Four of the PGA of America’s present Black Class A Members have been merchandise of the Post Graduate Program. Across each applications, 24 of 156 contributors weren’t white.

PGA of America’s stats as of April 1, 2021 additionally confirmed out of 28,042 present PGA professionals, 1,344 are ladies and 26,698 are males. Out of the ladies, 85.57 % are white and out of the boys, 90.31 % are white. Among Black PGA professionals particularly, 9 of the present PGA professionals are Black ladies (0.78 % of ladies and 0.036 % of whole) and 167 are Black males (0.69 % of males and .66 % of whole).

“I’ve always believed that it’s incredibly important for us to be transparent when it comes to diversity and inclusion. … You know, our numbers aren’t strong and they can be shocking to some but oftentimes it’s that shock and awe that move people to action,” Cross mentioned. “Seeing those numbers in black and white, seeing that information gets people to say, ‘You know what, I need to get people to engage here.’”

Cross, who’s been with the PGA of America for 25 years, mentioned the PGA of America has labored to make the value of turning into a PGA Member as affordable as attainable, however she admitted it’s nonetheless not inexpensive for some. Cross mentioned some people seeing PGA membership nonetheless want to take out loans or have monetary help. Financials supplied to Golfweek said the fee for a person to grow to be a PGA Member by way of the non-university monitor is $3,810 not together with journey, housing and fundamental residing bills which aren’t supplied by the PGA of America.

According to Census.gov, the medium earnings of white Americans in 2017 was $68,145. The median earnings of Hispanic Americans was $50,486 whereas that of Black Americans was $40,258. With Black Americans averaging considerably decrease incomes than the typical white American, Cross was requested if the PGA of America has a plan to make the fee of turning into a PGA of America member extra inexpensive to decrease earnings people from non-white backgrounds. Cross mentioned Chief Innovation Officer Arjun Chowdri is at present taking a look at choices to help decrease earnings people, however for now, there isn’t a timeline on a plan or program.

For the time being, Cross mentioned the PGA of America doesn’t see a necessity for a separate program to facilitate extra direct entry for racially various and decrease earnings candidates as a result of they’ve made the PGA Membership course of as accessible as attainable. She did stress the necessity for the PGA of America to present extra mentorship, particularly non-white candidates pursuing membership.

“Based on how today’s professional golf management is structured, we don’t believe there’s a need for this separate accelerated (program) or separate post-graduate program because the attributes of today’s program have what the other two programs had,” Cross mentioned. “With one potential exception and it goes back to that mentoring piece. When individuals from diverse backgrounds, individuals of color come into our (Membership) program as it exists today … they still need that high-level, high-touch experience. They still need someone leading them … through the process. … Keeping them motivated. Keeping them inspired.”

In 2018, the PGA Works program was established. Cooper is member of the PGA Works National Committee. The non-profit creates fellowships, scholarships and profession exploration occasions to lead people “from diverse backgrounds” to pursue careers within the trade. Cross mentioned this program just isn’t a alternative for the 2 variety applications as a result of PGA Works introduces potential members to choices relatively than have interaction them by way of the method and subsequently, doesn’t present the mentorship of the earlier two applications. It additionally doesn’t pay for any stage of coaching.

Seeing the void left within the golf trade after the applications have been shelved, Eastside Golf and its founders need to use their success to encourage and spend money on the sport. If the PGA of America and different governing our bodies don’t create racial variety particular applications, the duo plans to do it themselves.

Merchandise from Eastside Golf founders Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper. (Logger Creative)

Cooper — together with his expertise contained in the PGA of America and a PGA Member — and Ajanaku — together with his untainted ardour for golf — determined their long run objective is to construct their very own golf academy. While they nonetheless want time to construct capital and set up a location, they plan to spark change by coaching and certifying Black golf professionals.

“Black men and women lack the point of reference of the opportunities in the PGA of America because the numbers (of Black professionals) are so low,” Cooper mentioned. “I didn’t have Black PGA professionals to look up to to even be a Black PGA professional. … There’s no middle of the road, everyday, average guy that just loved the game of golf and decided to have a successful career. Those stories aren’t being told.”

Ajanaku and Cooper careworn they’re not offended in regards to the lack of racially particular variety applications in golf. Rather, they’re disheartened. Even after they’ve stuffed each requirement and sacrificed consolation and time, they felt the isolation and discrimination felt by many golfers as a result of of pores and skin colour or socioeconomic standing.

Because of their love for the game, they’re prepared to use their frustrations and hurts together with their successes to make a change — one sweatshirt at a time.

“People just look at me or (Ajanaku) in the moment and it’s like, ‘No, these guys are embodying a lot of pain and passion and are trying to speak for a whole group of folks,’” Cooper mentioned. “That’s our their level of intensity comes from. … We’re going to make some noise and bring forth real change. Whether we do it or someone else does it, it’s going to happen.”

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