Paving The Way
by Caroline Kleiner
May. 21, 22
When she was 10 – years of practice away from becoming the eighth Black woman to earn a PGA membership – Jasmin Cunningham couldn’t understand why her dad kept taking her to play golf. She looked around and didn’t see anyone like her at the course.
“I asked my dad, ‘Why would you put me in this sport? There’s no other girls that look like me,’” Cunningham told Monica McNutt in an interview for PGA of America and GoodSport.
Now, golf is Cunningham’s life, and she works to make Black golfers more visible both on and off the course, working as an account representative at Titleist, and as a member of their internal Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Council.
But it wasn’t until Cunningham got to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically Black university with a unique professional golf management major program, that she was around a lot of other Black golfers, she said.
The golf course is immediately visible when driving into Eastern Shore, and having the program at an HBCU offered a different perspective to Black students who hadn’t ever been interested in the sport because they didn’t see players who looked like them, Cunningham said.
After seeing her out there playing, students would ask Cunningham if she could teach them how, she said.
“When you’re watching golf as a Black person, you’re like, “Okay, I don’t see anybody that looks like me, I don’t want to watch it. I’m going to watch basketball, football instead,’” she said. “But the other students at the university, now they actually see people of color playing golf, so it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m a little bit more interested. Let me watch golf on TV, or let me join a free clinic that they’re hosting.’”
Getting Cunningham a scholarship at a college like UMES was exactly why her father dragged her to the course when she was 10, she said. When he explained to her that getting a golf scholarship could get her to a college out of state, she started taking the game more seriously. Eventually, she fell in love with it.
UMES drew Cunningham because of a recommendation from her mentor, PGA pro Daryl Batey, and because the school offered a minor that fit her interests in tourism and hospitality. She earned free tuition through the Renee Powell Scholarship – named for the legendary Black golfer who Cunningham had seen as a role model for years.
In the 1960s and 70s, Powell – who was the first Black woman to earn a PGA membership – endured racism throughout her 13-year career on the LPGA tour, and has dedicated herself to expanding golf to a more diverse group of players since she retired from the tour in 1980.
Her father, Bill Powell, built Clearview Golf Club, the first course in the U.S. that was designed, owned and operated by an African-American. Renee Powell now serves as the club’s head professional.
“Watching her and her experience obviously gave me a different perspective on the game, and realizing, ‘Oh, I can do something like that. A woman who looks like me, I can definitely pursue a career in gold, and I don’t just have to play it,’” Cunningham said.
Cunningham first met Powell when she was a freshman at UMES. She said she “flipped out,” when she heard Powell was coming. Powell’s strength and resilience inspires Cunningham, who said the legend reminds her that she needs to keep pushing for the Black women who are coming up behind her.
Cunningham has worked her way up in two spaces where deals are often made – on the golf course, and in the boardroom. She said Titleist recognizes the value of hearing her perspective on things they may have never heard of before, and she wants other Black women to see the same opportunities available to them.
“What motivates me is really the women behind me, because I want them to see a Black woman have a leadership role within a company and say, ‘Wow, I’m able to do what she’s doing,” Cunningham said.