SAN FRANCISCO - When it comes to women’s golf, HBCU's (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have reason for celebration as former Jackson State star Shasta Averyhardt will be in the field for the Women’s U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club when play starts tomorrow.
Averyhardt, who turned pro in 2009, will be the only African-American in the field and one of only a handful to compete in the prestigious tournament.
But HBCUs have reason for sadness about women’s golf as well. Even though the number of black girls who play golf is increasing, a growing number of HBCUs are discontinuing women’s programs as they cut costs in their athletic departments.
It’s a paradoxical dilemma that places Averyhardt in the position of carrying the hopes and dreams of countless female African-American golfers as she competes in her first major tournament.
“I am really excited about the opportunity," said Averyhardt, a four-time SWAC champion. “This is one of my bigger goals. It shows people there are good players at HBCUs. It’s very exciting for other black women golfers. Younger girls see that if I can do it, they can do it too."
However, Averyhardt says she not approaching the tournament as though she has to perform well to validate all black female golfers or those who aspire to play the game.
“If you look at it from the outside, I am playing for more than myself," she says. “I can’t look at it from the outside. I have to focus on playing."
Averyhardt’s number-one goal is to qualify for the LPGA Tour. She has played on the DURAMED Futures Tour, known as “The Road to the LPGA" because of its mission to develop young women golfers for the major circuit, since January.
She qualified for the Futures Tour after going through Qualifying School last fall in her first attempt to earn an LPGA Tour card. She finished in the top 30 in sectional qualifying, which earned her a spot in the finals. However, she failed to finish in the top 40 at the finals, which she needed to do to earn a Tour card.
“I thought I was going to do it," she says. “I realized I still need to learn to do more things – just learn to play, learn to win. You’re always learning every round you play. It keeps building. One day, everything will just click. I feel it will really soon. It’s a grueling process. It’s not easy. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it."
Averyhardt can also earn a Tour card by finishing among the top money winners on the
“I've had bumps in the road trying to get to the low scores, to put myself in the right position to win tournaments," she says. “But, I feel like I'm moving in a positive direction."
Jackson State golf coach Eddie Payton, the former NFL kick returner and running back, is confident Averyhardt has the talent to become a productive player on the major circuit.
“She is perhaps the most physically complete player from a black college," Payton says. “She has everything needed to make a good living – a good swing rhythm and balance, and she hits it far as anybody. Her short game is on par with all those making a living. The only thing she lacks is experience. If she stays the course, she will do some great things."
Averyhardt has played in seven Futures events this year and has earned $2,389, which places her 117th on the money list. She ranks 92nd on the tour with an average score of 74.12. Her best finish was tie for 23rd at the Historic Brownsville Open in Rancho Viejo, Texas, in April.
Averyhardt became interested in golf when she around 10 years old. She picked the game up from her father, who is an avid golfer. She enjoyed spending time with him, and golf provided an opportunity to do that. Eventually, she became fascinated by the game.
“It was interesting trying to hit the ball toward a target and having a certain swing to make it happen," she says. “I mimicked what my father was doing on the golf course."
Averyhardt is attempting to become the first black female golfer of consequence since Renee Powell, who played the LPGA Tour from 1967-80. No black golfer has won an event in the Tour’s 60-year history. The prospects of that trend changing aren’t promising in light of the plight of women’s golf programs at HBCUs, which are the most logical venues to produce black golfers.
“We’re the only place (for black female golfers), basically, unless you’re a world beater," Payton says.
Alabama A&M, South Carolina State, Southern University and Arkansas-Pine Bluff have all dropped women’s golf in the last four years, and Grambling State is considering discontinuing its men’s and women’s programs.
“If this continues, it will change the history of game in negative way," says Payton, who has become an outspoken advocate for women’s golf. “It’s taking away the opportunity for role models for the next generation."
Payton estimates that about two percent of the golfers who compete in the NCAA women’s golf tournament are black. He says if HBCUs continue to disband programs, the percentage will be even smaller, or worse yet - there won’t be any blacks in the field.
Payton says the travesty doesn’t just lie in the fact that female golfers are being denied opportunities to compete on the collegiate level when HBCUs discontinue programs; the greater problem is they are being denied opportunities to obtain an education at no cost because of the scholarships that are no longer offered.
“We’re in danger of seeing a lot of things happen that are not good," Payton says. “It’s not whether they become great golfers or not. It’s the opportunity. That’s what we’re taking away from them."
Payton says losing women’s golf programs at HBCUs has a ripple effect on the number and quality of black female golfers.
“It’s not a question of losing great players," he says. “If they’re not great players, they could be great teachers who could teach great players."
Payton is on a crusade to enlighten golfers in general – and black golfers in particular – about the plight of women’s golf at HBCUs.
“A great percentage of population doesn’t know what is occurring," he says. “The LPGA and women’s advocacy groups don’t know the plight of HBCUs."
As part of his campaign, Payton is asking alumni of HBCUs to call their schools and voice their support of women’s golf.
Finances are at the driving reason behind schools’ decisions to drop women’s golf. But Payton says administrators are off base if they think such moves are fiscally prudent for their universities in the long run. He reasons that it is not nearly as expensive to field a golf team as it is to field a football team, which is the major revenue generator for most HBCUs’ athletic department.
“We fought so hard to give (women golfers) an opportunity," Payton says. "Now all of sudden, because football teams aren’t making money, and people are not going to classic football games, they want to cut women’s golf programs. That doesn’t make sense. If this were men’s football, alumni would be up in arms. People would roll over in their graves and come up out of their graves."
Payton adds that fielding women’s golf teams are actually an investment in universities’ future. He points out that members of Jackson State women’s golfers traditionally have the highest grade point averages among the school’s athletes, and that five former members of the golf team are enrolled in medical school.
“You can’t put a price on that," he says. “They may not be great golfers. But they are great athletes who become great alumnus."
A number of programs have been created to encourage youngsters to play golf. However, Texas Southern coach Hank Stewart says those programs to a degree will become wasted efforts if HBCUs don’t maintain women’s programs.
“It’s mindboggling to hear of any program cutting women’s golf," Stewart says. “We’re just getting the flow of women playing golf. If programs are cut, they don’t have any dreams; they can’t get an education. We have so many young ladies with dreams. If we cut programs at our schools, it would be terrible at this time. So many young girls are playing golf at this time. We shouldn’t take away that opportunity."
“With all the people playing golf, I hope they will get involved and help the (HBCU) programs." said Stewart. "They have daughters and granddaughters. One day, they’ll say, 'I want to play golf.' Maybe they will hear about this and take a stand. I hope they’ll step up to the plate and do what’s right."