For the past few holes at the Miami Springs Golf Course, Eastside Golf founder Olajuwon Ajanaku and co-founder Earl Cooper can feel themselves being watched.
Golf etiquette requires players to move somewhat swiftly through the course, especially if there are people behind them. Rangers will sometimes zip by to hurry players along yet one has decided to just sit and stare in silence as a Miami Herald photographer snaps the duo’s photo.
The hovering ranger wouldn’t have bothered Ajanaku and Cooper yet it’s something they deal with often. Little things like that suggest that golf still has a long way to go, Cooper said.
“You don’t have to come across like, so kind of…,” says Cooper, his voice trailing off.
“’Why are you out here?’” Ajanaku interjects.
“Yeah, like if you want to know what’s going on, ask,” Cooper continues. “Too often those are the people that ruin the experience and then you don’t want to come back cause it costs money, so you’re not gonna spend your money to get treated like that.”
Ajanaku and Cooper, both 33, are no strangers to the side-eyes and perplexing looks that come with being Black on the golf course. The two have a combined 50 years of experience in golf, having picked up the game as children and eventually winning the National Minority Golf Championship, now called the PGA Works Collegiate Championship, in 2010 during their time at Morehouse College. Now, the friends head Eastside Golf, a lifestyle brand that became the first company to collaborate with Jordan Golf in 2021.
“Our tagline is ‘be authentic’ so if we continue to be authentic and then just continue to bring people into the game that want to be themselves,” said Ajanaku, who founded the company in 2019. The brand is easily identified by their logo — a Black man in a sweatshirt, jeans and a thick gold chain swinging a golf club — which has shown the world “there’s power in representation.”
“We are taking a different approach and that’s being unapologetic and really standing on what we believe in,” Ajanaku added.
What they believe is rather clear: “The issue isn’t the game,” Cooper said., “it’s the rules that come with it.”
For much of golf’s existence in America, the rules that have governed the sport have existed to limit Black participation. The first documented shipment of golf supplies? Received by one of South Carolina’s most prominent slave traders. The storied Augusta National course? One of its creators famously said, “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white.” The last major American sports organization to integrate? Professional Golfers Association thanks to a “Caucasians Only” clause that was repealed in 1961.
“They called it a gentleman’s sport. Historically, we haven’t been considered gentlemen: savages, beast barbaric — those are the names often associated with us,” University of Miami sports communication professor Tywan Martin said. At the mention that Black Americans account for less than 1 percent of the nearly 29,000 PGA of America members, according to Golf Digest, Martin isn’t surprised. “The intention that was given to ensure that there was limited access historically, it’s that same intentionality it’s going to take to diversify.”
Between 1941 and 1970, more than two dozen lawsuits sought to challenge courses’ segregation. One such case involved the Miami Springs Golf Course, which was the first desegregated course in South Florida. Black golfers could only play on Mondays at Miami Springs yet in June 1949, a young Garth Reeves, who would later become publisher emeritus of The Miami Times, and other Black Miamians decided to go on another day. They were denied and filed a lawsuit shortly thereafter, however, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against the group at first.
“The reason for the rule was to prevent friction between the white and Negro golfers on the course,” Florida Supreme Court Justice Roy Chapman wrote in 1950. “Courts are powerless to eradicate social instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences.”
Seven years later, after a lengthy cycle of appeal after appeal that propelled the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the city dropped the Monday-only rule in 1957.
“It was significant because it forced the city, it forced the authorities to have to comply with a legitimate request for equal treatment and they couldn’t escape it even though we’re talking about an era before the Civil Rights bill,” Miami historian Marvin Dunn said.
Although Ajanaku modeled the Eastside Golf logo after himself, it embodies the history of resiliency needed to be Black in the world of golf.
“There’s been a ton of work,” Cooper said. “This golf course here, right. First desegregated golf course in this area…We’re just playing a role in this overall bigger change that golf needs.”
This is why Eastside Golf resonates with people outside the golf world. Athletes ranging from NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes to future Baseball Hall-of-Famer CC Sabathia to NBA superstar Jayson Tatum all have rocked Eastside Golf on and off the course while their first ever shoe, the Jordan 4 Golf, is a coveted item for sneakerheads. As one of the first brands to inject Black culture into golf, the hope is that more people of African descent will find their way to courses, eventually changing the culture surrounding the sport.
“There’s no creativity” currently in golf, Cooper said. He compared the rigidity of game to that of an Ivy League where “you’re looking for a type of person” with “this type of money, these type of relationships, this type of neighborhood.”
That also speaks to the obvious appeal of the apparel. Although golf attire staples like neutral colored polo shirts and visors can be found on the Eastside Golf website, so can outside of the box items like their red clay collection with Jordan, an ode to the soil present in Ajanaku’s hometown of Atlanta that used to nearly ruin his clothes any time he’d head to the course. The co-founders were actually wearing items from the red clay collection when Ajanaku’s Jordan 12 lows — that he himself designed — caught a white passerby’s eye.
“Them kicks fresh as hell boyyyyy,” the golfer exclaimed from his golf cart.
Although entities like the PGA have pledged to do more to diversify, Cooper and Ajanaku don’t plan on waiting around for them to catch up. One of the reasons Ajanaku started Eastside Golf in 2019 was to create his own sponsorship opportunities after being unable to attract sponsors when he initially tried to turn pro after graduation. Now, Eastside Golf has two signees under its belt, Wyatt Worthington II and Michael Herrera.
“Usually you’ll see, players become owners but have you ever seen an owner become a player?” said Ajanaku who hopes to turn pro in 2023.
Meanwhile, the Morehouse College graduates plan to continue using Eastside Golf as an educational platform. A quick scan of their Instagram page reveals several posts dedicated to seminal figures in the Black golf world. Having released both an Eastside Golf docuseries and their second Jordan collaboration in December, their journey is just beginning.
“We have a lot of ideas,” Cooper said. “But I think at the end of the day, you know it’s gonna be a billion dollar company.”
This story was originally published January 20, 2023 12:21 PM.