On the morning of the final round of the Masters, a 42-year-old man named Herman Belton orders breakfast at a Waffle House two miles away from Augusta National. Belton isn’t a world-class golfer -- though he does play to a one handicap -- so Phil Mickelson he’s not. What he is, however, may be nearly as important to a sport that is struggling more than ever to build new fan bases and find new pockets of American talent.
Belton is the golf coach at Paine College in Augusta. He’s only been coaching 10 years, but he already has a strong resume. He has an inspiring life story. And he wants to be considered for an assistant's job at a Division I school.
That would make him only the second black Division I golf coach ever.
There are only 17 black golf coaches in this country. All but one of them, including Belton, are at historically black colleges. "It's disappointing," says the only black D-I head coach, Michigan State's Sam Puryear. "I look at all the black coaches in football and basketball, and then I look at golf, and it's disproportionate."
Is this the sole reason golf has so few black golfers? No. Is it part of the reason? Absolutely.
Young people are inspired by older people in positions of power and influence. If he can do it, kids think, I can do it. That’s what Lucas Gunn (above with Belton) thought when he was eight years old watching Tiger Woods win the Masters in 1997. Now he’s a sophomore on Belton’s team.
And he’s white.
Don’t be surprised. Golf teams at historically black colleges are populated by a large amount of whites. The Paine College team has six players, and three – including Gunn, the captain – are white. That’s how rare it is to find young black golfers these days. As of 2008, more than a decade after Woods inspired a generation by winning the Masters at age 21, there were only 39 blacks among the 27,000 Class A PGA members. From 1999 to 2005, in the years after Tiger burst onto the golf scene, the percentage of black men playing golf in college grew only minimally, from 1.8 to 2.4. Back in the '60s and '70s, when the PGA Tour had black legends like Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder (pictured below, with Belton), there were more black PGA Tour players than there are today.
Maybe mentorship is missing. Nobody can make African-Americans choose golf over football and basketball, and few can or will donate clubs and gear to minorities who can't afford to play a rich man's game. But for African-American teens who want to try golf, how many teachers are out there who they can easily access and identify with? The First Tee, geared toward introducing young people to the game, is more about sportsmanship than training. Since being founded in the late '90s, it hasn't made much of a change in the makeup of golf's racial demographics.
Black golfers, rare though they are, still greatly outnumber black college coaches. Even Puryear says he has his job because of the "perfect fit" he had at Stanford, which hired him as an assistant in 1998. Puryear's father was an All-American golfer, and he himself was a standout fundraiser and golf philanthropist before getting the call from the Pac 10 school. Reached by phone after a tournament Sunday night, Puryear said of the lack of black coaches like himself, "I have discussed this with so many people, but I have no idea what to do."
Maybe Belton is part of the solution.
He grew up in Camden, S.C. and enlisted in the Navy. It was there he found his love for golf, in 1991. A cousin took him to a driving range, lent Belton his 7-iron, and marveled as he hit it farther than he could with a 6-iron. A friend then gave Belton a full set of clubs, and he shot 84 (from the back tees) six months later.
After traveling the world as a naval officer, Belton enrolled at Benedict College and played golf there. He graduated in 2001, becoming the first in his family to get a college degree. Then came the reason he now says "Golf saved my life."
Belton’s father, Herman, Sr., had a history of drug abuse. Belton says his dad's influence was "leading me down the road of self-destruction." Herman Belton, Sr. is now serving a prison sentence for drug trafficking. And if Belton himself didn’t have a passion that required study and discipline, he says, "I'd be in jail."
In 2004, the Benedict College athletic director asked Belton to be the school’s golf coach. The program was brand new, but Belton led the school to the National Minority Division II Collegiate Championship in his first year. He went on to South Carolina State in 2009 and coached one of his players, Roberto Cacho, to the PGA Minority Tournament championship. Belton says the love for golf has kept him on the straight and narrow, as he owes it to his players to live and act right. "I'm living the total opposite of what I was taught," he says.
This February, Belton was hired as the head coach at Paine.
"He's a great player's coach," says Gunn. "The prior coach couldn't play a lick of golf. He was just there to drive the bus."
Belton calls himself a "Shade Tree Mechanic," which usually describes a car lover who charges reasonable rates to people who want their ride fixed without being gouged. It’s a bit of a self-deprecating term, but anyone who’s had a golf lesson at a club knows how ridiculously priced an hour with a swing coach can be. Golf needs a lot more shade tree mechanics if it's going to reach new audiences.
"I feel like I should be at a major program," Belton says. "Am I prepared? What do you think?"
Puryear thinks Belton would make a great assistant. "He knows so many people," the Spartans coach says. And that's no small thing, as a lot of being a college coach is networking with equipment reps and other power players in the golf community who might know where to find the best recruits.
And sometimes the best recruits are reluctant to take a chance on committing to a black coach simply because they are so used to playing for white coaches.
So Puryear remains the lone wolf.
"It's obscene," Belton says. "It's absurd."
He leans in over his breakfast plate and adds, "How many administrators are willing to have a black coach?"
Problem is, there's no urgent reason for that to change. "If you don’t have someone fighting for [more black coaches]," Belton says, "where would it come to pass?"
Perhaps a version of the Rooney Rule could work, borrowing from the NFL's policy of insisting on one minority interview per job opening. But there aren't nearly enough black candidates to make that work. In the NFL, there are plenty of former black players who want to stay in the game. But Puryear says a lot of black golfers don't want to go into coaching. And it's a pretty big leap of faith to elevate a coach from a tiny school like Paine College to a major university.
For any momentum to gather, somebody in academia needs to take a chance on a coach from a historically black college.
A coach like Herman Belton.
Eric Adelson can be reached at email@example.com.
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