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

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JuliaKate E. Culpepper
·17 min read
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Are you sure you want to lead with that?

Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper heard that comment more than once about the Eastside Golf logo. The former Morehouse golf teammates chose the dynamic depiction of a Black man swinging a golf club while wearing a gold chain, jeans and gray sweatshirt.

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

“I made it so the younger generation has representation of what’s possible,” Ajanaku said. “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 logo in May 2019 as a personal logo for his golf bag, but Cooper, now co-founder, thought it had more potential. He encouraged Ajanaku to display it on a T-shirt. Ajanaku listened and took the T-shirt on a test run around Detroit where he worked as a sales manager in commercial finance. That afternoon dozens of strangers stopped him on the street and asked where he found 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 currently has partnerships with the National Basketball Players Association and merchandise is sold internationally. Its collection includes sweatshirts, ball markers, club covers and socks and is available for purchase on its website. Eastside Golf’s immediate success is largely due to how the logo simultaneously challenges and affirms golf — that’s the impact Ajanaku and Cooper wanted in the white, affluent, male-dominated game.

“It’s exactly what we want to lead with because that logo itself is so disruptive,” Cooper said. “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 industry that has historically discriminated based on race. For Ajanaku and Cooper to have careers in golf and rise to their current platform, significant forces were at work to invite, include and lead them to pursue paths in the sport often riddled with exclusion.

They plan to use their success to re-create those opportunities on a larger 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, near East Lake Golf Club and was the first in his family to play golf. He quickly fell in love with the game, but as the only Black kid on public courses across Atlanta, in AJGA events and First Tee programs, he felt a void no amount of success on the course could fill.

His mother worked two or three jobs to help pay for golf and his father wasn’t present in his life around the time Ajanaku started high school. As a result, his parents rarely attended tournaments. He felt a chasm between his experience of the game and that of his white counterparts. The lack of Black friends and stress his involvement in golf put on his mother could have been enough to quit and pursue basketball like his friends, but Ajanaku was inspired by opportunity the game promised.

Golf provided him with mentorship. On courses around Atlanta, he met men from different careers and backgrounds and learned about their lives. They showed Ajanaku the doors golf opened — a benefit Ajanaku said should be available regardless of background, race or economic status.

“The story is golf is for everybody and golf can be used as a tool,” Ajanaku said. “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 difficult and lonely at times, but Ajanaku kept playing. He played at Morehouse where he met Cooper and pursued a professional golf career following graduation in 2012. After two years of sacrifice and playing on small tours like the APGA, he had the “Where is this going?” talk with his mom. He quit pursuing a professional golf career, but using his connections from golf, found a job in finance and moved to Detroit.

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

Earl Cooper’s journey

Cooper, 31, began playing golf at age 6 after being introduced to the game by a family friend in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. His junior golf career was promising. At 13, he won locals and regionals for Drive, Chip, Putt and placed second at nationals. Like Ajanaku, however, he was always the sole Black young man on the course. That changed when he attended Morehouse.

After graduation in 2011, Cooper enrolled in the PGA of America’s Post Graduate Program. The program, no longer active, supported participants from diverse backgrounds who have completed standard requirements on the path to PGA Membership by paying for Level 1 instruction. Cooper completed the seven-week program in 2011 and was certified as a PGA professional in 2014, according to PGA of America records.

“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 said.

After earning PGA Membership, he broke barriers as the first Black golf pro at Detroit Golf Club in 2012. In 2014, he became the first Black golf pro at Wilmington Country Club where he used to caddie. He once even gave a lesson to then Vice President Joe Biden. As a teaching pro, Cooper created his own teaching 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 only as a Black man in the industry, but as a teaching pro in general, Cooper left in the industry in 2016 for the Wilmington mayor’s office for several reasons, but the most glaring was he felt limited in golf because of his skin color.

“I was successful (in the golf industry), but at the same time, I wasn’t myself fully,” Cooper said. “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 office, he worked as a community referral specialist for four years, focused on public and private partnerships. Cooper was content working a job with impact and using his ties with corporations from his time in golf to facilitate programming.

That changed in 2019 when Ajanaku asked Cooper for advice on his logo.

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

The idea takes off

After seeing the impact his T-shirt with Eastside Golf’s logo had in Detroit, Ajanaku started an LLC for Eastside Golf copyrighting the logo and name in June 2019. Five months later, he stocked a few items like sweatshirts, socks, hats and T-shirts for sale online. He sold out. Three times.

Seeing success in small doses, Ajanaku planned to take the collection of Eastside Golf merchandise to the 2020 PGA Show in Orlando, in January. He contacted Cooper for ideas and to come along, but Cooper was hesitant. Like Ajanaku, Cooper loved how Eastside Golf challenged the common conception of a golfer as white and affluent, but because of the lack of acceptance he personally experienced in the industry, he didn’t expect the golf community at the PGA Show to go for it.

Thankfully, Cooper was wrong. Eastside Golf was an instant success at 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 said. “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 business cards Ajanaku and Cooper collected at the show was one from a Japanese boutique which bought 25 sweatshirts. When the boutique sold out in 24 hours, Ajanaku said it came back with a $15,000 purchase order. Not only was Eastside Golf a hit domestically, it was picking 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 across the country. His layoff served as a sign. Coming off the buzz of the PGA Show, he went all in on Eastside Golf. He dipped into his savings, took out money from his 401K, sold his Bitcoin and received $10,000 from an investor in Detroit.

Since Ajanaku went all in, he and Cooper feel like they’ve been strapped to a rocket. Now both full-time with Eastside Golf, Ajanaku and Cooper said as of April 2021 the company is valued at 800 times the initial investment. The brand is even surfacing in other sports circles through its NBPA partnership. NBA star Chris Paul even wore one of Eastside Golf’s sweatshirts in the recent HBO documentary, “The Day Sports Stood Still.” The co-founders insists they’re not paying Paul or anyone to wear their merchandise. Their goal rather isn’t to build publicity, it’s to inspire change.

“We’re not here to make golf cool,” Ajanaku said. “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 next steps

While Eastside Golf hopes to draw Black players to the game through its messages of authenticity and inclusion, its long-term goal is to create a non-profit similar to the now dissolved PGA of America Post Graduate Program. This program, however, will focus on advancing Black individuals into the industry.

While Cooper credits his golf career to the Post Graduate Program, he believes the program was “the pipeline” to bring non-white candidates to membership and its termination was harmful to the diversity the industry pledges to value. He said the program served as an “on-board ramp” to help racially diverse candidates access the industry that can be so exclusive along the lines of race, sex and socioeconomic status. Without the program, he said many non-white candidates are limited because of cost. He said the PGA of America previously paying for Level 1 boosted diverse candidates from lower 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 said. “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, told Golfweek the PGA of America had two programs focused on assistance with PGA Membership: the PGA Professional Golf Management Accelerated Program, which began in 2008 and was open for all but designed for non-white golfers, and PGA of America Post Graduate Program, which began in 2005 and was open to all demographics. Both were discontinued.

Cross, who oversees Human Resources and Diversity & Inclusion, said neither of the programs were specifically geared toward non-white golfers pursuing PGA of America membership, but rather open to all demographics due to the Internal Revenue Service’s private inurement laws the PGA of America must follow due to its tax exempt status. Cross said private inurement laws prohibit financially benefiting one sub-group of PGA Membership over another. She said the same concept is seen in the requirement to offer their retirement program for PGA Members, Golf Retirement Plus, to all industry 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 said. “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 said many of the candidates left the now dissolved programs after Level 1 “due to lack of financial support.”

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

According to figures provided to Golfweek by the PGA of America, 16 Black individuals participated in the PGM Accelerated Program. Five are currently Class A Members. Four of the PGA of America’s current Black Class A Members were products of the Post Graduate Program. Across both programs, 24 of 156 participants were not white.

PGA of America’s stats as of April 1, 2021 also showed out of 28,042 current PGA professionals, 1,344 are women and 26,698 are men. Out of the women, 85.57 percent are white and out of the men, 90.31 percent are white. Among Black PGA pros specifically, nine of the current PGA pros are Black women (0.78 percent of women and 0.036 percent of total) and 167 are Black men (0.69 percent of men and .66 percent of total).

“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 said. “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, said the PGA of America has worked to make the price of becoming a PGA Member as reasonable as possible, but she admitted it is still not affordable for some. Cross said some individuals seeing PGA membership still need to take out loans or have financial assistance. Financials provided to Golfweek stated the cost for an individual to become a PGA Member through the non-university track is $3,810 not including travel, housing and basic living expenses which are not provided by the PGA of America.

According to Census.gov, the medium income of white Americans in 2017 was $68,145. The median income of Hispanic Americans was $50,486 while that of Black Americans was $40,258. With Black Americans averaging significantly lower incomes than the average white American, Cross was asked if the PGA of America has a plan to make the cost of becoming a PGA of America member more affordable to lower income individuals from non-white backgrounds. Cross said Chief Innovation Officer Arjun Chowdri is currently looking at options to assist lower income individuals, but for now, there is no timeline on a plan or program.

For the time being, Cross said the PGA of America does not see a need for a separate program to facilitate more direct access for racially diverse and lower income candidates because they’ve made the PGA Membership process as accessible as possible. She did stress the need for the PGA of America to provide more mentorship, specifically 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 said. “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 career exploration events to lead individuals “from diverse backgrounds” to pursue careers in the industry. Cross said this program is not a replacement for the two diversity programs because PGA Works introduces potential members to options rather than engage them through the process and therefore, does not provide the mentorship of the previous two programs. It also does not pay for any level of training.

Seeing the void left in the golf industry after the programs were shelved, Eastside Golf and its founders want to use their success to inspire and invest in the game. If the PGA of America and other governing bodies do not create racial diversity specific programs, the duo plans to do it themselves.

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

Cooper — with his experience inside the PGA of America and a PGA Member — and Ajanaku — with his untainted passion for golf — decided their long term goal is to build their own golf academy. While they still need time to build capital and establish a location, they plan to spark change by training and certifying Black golf pros.

“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 said. “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 stressed they’re not angry about the lack of racially specific diversity programs in golf. Rather, they’re disheartened. Even when they’ve filled every requirement and sacrificed comfort and time, they felt the isolation and discrimination felt by many golfers because of skin color or socioeconomic status.

Because of their love for the sport, they’re willing to use their frustrations and hurts along 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 said. “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.”