Near the 18th green at Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston, Jeff Champ watched with a full heart as his son, Cameron Champ, one of a few Black golfers on the PGA Tour, signed autographs for a legion of adoring fans.
The father was flooded with emotions for two reasons: It came during the first annual Mack Champ Invitational last month, a tournament named after his late father, and his son’s admirers were 111 young golfers of color, many of whom were Black, which is an anomaly in an overwhelmingly white sport.
The moment — and the event — served as a culmination of a vision Mack Champ had for his grandson, whom he introduced to the game. Sure, he dreamed his grandson would make it to the PGA Tour, but he wanted him to create a pathway for other Black players to do so as well.
Cameron Champ has done both in a way that makes his father proud.
“And my father proud, too,” Jeff Champ said. “To honor my dad this way was beautiful.”
The Mack Champ Invitational, sponsored by the Cameron Champ Foundation, is now the only national junior golf event that features only girls and boys of color, ages 9 to 18.
“As a woman and person of color, it was really special for me,” said Caila Roberts of the American Junior Golf Association. She served as the tournament’s director and worked closely with Jeff Champ to coordinate the event. “It’s no secret that there’s a lack of diversity in golf. So these young players never get that opportunity to play against and with each other or be around each other on a golf course — ever.”
According to the National Golf Foundation, only 3 percent of recreational golfers are Black. Among competitive golfers — including youth players — that figure drops to 1.5 percent.
Roberts said watching the children play together and develop friendships and “seeing that mass amount of diversity, that mass amount of Black people, Black youths, on a golf course — thinking about it gives me chills.”
The Bill Dickey Invitational has provided a similar space for young Black golfers and golfers of color since 2000, but it did not take place in 2020. Jeff Champ saw it as an opportunity to “fill in that important gap,” he said.
“We needed to keep this opportunity alive,” Champ added. “When these Black kids play, they see zero kids who look like them, or maybe one, very seldom two. So to see them blossom and talk to each other, build relationships, that was special and will be important to them because it can be lonely when they are playing in these tournaments. It does something to know they aren’t the only ones going through that.”
Minority junior golfers came from 26 states, Canada and Costa Rica to compete. Roberts said parents were also feeling emotional watching their own children participate in a tournament like this.
That includes Patrick Henderson, who accompanied his daughter, Reagan, 13, to the event and said he was “overwhelmed” by the experience.
“I was touched by this event,” Henderson, who is in the Army, said. “We rarely ever see other Black golfers at the events my daughter competes. To see Black and minority golfers everywhere … there was so much joy in that.”
Reagan has been competing for six years, her dad said. He added that she was overwhelmed with “not only the number of Black players, but the number of really good Black players” at the Mack Champ Invitational.
“I knew what we were getting into with golf,” he said. “There is some isolation for Black players. To see Black people come together and share information to parents and players was special. There was so much love in the air.”
At the head of it all was PGA Tour player Cameron Champ, 25, who was present the entire weekend. He hosted a clinic and an extended question-and-answer period with the golfers and stuck around to sign as many autographs and take as many photos with fans as possible. Champ’s two PGA Tour wins make him the second-most successful Black golfer on the PGA Tour, behind Tiger Woods, who is currently not competing after a car accident.
“Jeff and Cameron both have a strong respect for people who came before them,” said Glenn Weckerlin, chairman of the Cameron Champ Foundation, which combines golf, STEM education, mentoring and tutoring for underserved youth in the Sacramento, California, area. It is based at the Foothill Golf Course, a nine-hole par-3 track where Mack Champ taught Cameron Champ how to golf.
“They understand the baton passes and they don’t want to drop it,” Weckerlin added. “Jeff, Cameron and his foundation do not want, 20 years from now, to come and people to say there has been no change.”
Cameron Champ, who was unavailable for an interview as he prepared for the Masters Tournament this week in Augusta, Georgia, has been demonstrably outspoken about racial issues.
Last summer, Cameron Champ, whose mother is white, wore one black and one white golf shoe during a tournament to represent unity. He wrote the names of Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor, two Black people who were shot by law enforcement in 2020, and “BLM,” for Black Lives Matter, on his shoes. He also donned one black and one white shoe at a tournament during Black History Month.
“It’s just spreading awareness and sticking by what I believe in and what I believe needs to be changed,” he said in a press conference last year. “I’ve seen a lot of other athletes speak out about it. It’s a situation where people don’t want to talk about it, which I get, but at the same time, it’s reality. It’s what we live in. People ignore it for so long, and then it gets to a point where it just blows up. And this is just the tipping of the iceberg. Change needs to happen.”
He received some social media backlash for those comments, which he also confronted.
“We are extremely divided as a country, because why would people disagree with me taking a stance against that level of racial injustice?” he said. “When you look at George Floyd, if you put that situation in a white, middle-class neighborhood, there is no way that cop would respond that way with a white man.”
It is this division that inspires the Mack Champ Invitational.
“That’s the kind of guy that Cam is,” Weckerlin said. “He is outspoken about the things that need to change. But he’s all humility and says what he has to say with humility.”
A tournament like this, Weckerlin said, can open doors for children.
“But those doors don’t have to be golf. Golf can provide the access to get an education, to get exposure, travel, meet people, grow as a person. And when they can touch and talk to someone like Cameron, who looks like them, who is where they would like to be, someone they can relate to, it becomes a ‘he’s one of us’ thing,” he said, “and that’s lasting.”