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November 2017

The 4 Horsemen

the4horsemen.jpg‭By Steve Eubanks

New ownership has transformed Marlton Golf Club into a place of outreach for the minority community in suburban D.C.

Everyone has their reasons. Some like the panache, kidding themselves that they’re buying this club or that club as an “investment,” when, in reality, they’ve made enough money in things like covered interest arbitrage or a chain of 7-Elevens—businesses that don’t raise any eyebrows or get an “Oh, wow, that sounds fascinating” comment at dinner parties—that they can plow some cash into a property for the privilege of saying, “I own a golf course.”

Others get in because it’s all they know. They grew up in the game, started working on the maintenance crew or in the cart barn, progressed to the golf shop, learned to read a balance sheet, and either earned enough money or found enough partners to make their dreams come true.

Some do it because they find an undervalued asset and know a good investment when they see one. But even those people love the game. Golf isn’t something you simply tack onto your retirement portfolio like IBM stock or tax-free municipal bonds.

But sometimes, on rare occasions, golf offers a chance to do something special, something bigger than the bottom line. In a few rare instances, the business of the game gives you a chance to make a difference. For four men in Maryland—successful African-American businessmen from different backgrounds but with a common goal—that offer came in the form of the Marlton Golf Club in Prince George’s County, just 20 miles southeast of the White House and in a neighborhood where golf hasn’t been a priority for years.

“In late 2014, a residential developer owned the golf course and was developing the surrounding neighborhood,” recalls Henry Turner, himself a former developer. “It was 162 acres, and I realized that if it didn’t work out as a golf course, I could put a development of some kind on it myself. So, I got my neighbor, Vann Jones, and Willie Blakeney, a friend who was in the music industry, and we bought the golf course [in April of 2015].”

The men had no experience in the business. Blakeney owned a sound-studio equipment company. Jones didn’t even play golf. He had retired as a design engineer from Washington Gas Light Company and had a second career as a real estate broker. But they all knew the area. According to Turner, “Vann and I both grew up here in Prince George’s County in the late 1960s and early 1970s when this neighborhood was 95 percent white. Fast-forward to 2015, the demographics have changed. The neighborhood is 50 percent black. So, now you have a community of residents that have never been exposed to golf, but there’s a golf course sitting in the middle of their neighborhood. A good portion of them have never set foot on a golf course.”

Turner also had a history that called him to buy Marlton Golf Course. In the 1990s, when he and his wife were serving in the military, the Turners were looking to buy a place in Mississippi. A local realtor showed them one neighborhood that had a golf course, but the agent’s lack of enthusiasm sent a clear message. “He said, ‘No, you won’t end up here, not on this golf course.’ Really, he was telling me point-blank that we’re black, and we wouldn’t step foot on that golf course.”

That history, that realization and that calling led all four men to something that has become more than a business opportunity: In Marlton Golf Course, they found a purpose.

“Having been in business as long as I have, the opportunity to expose the people in the [minority] community to business through golf was a big part of our mission,” Jones affirms. “Not only can you learn to play golf [here], you might someday become a [business] owner.”

The owners made the commitment that Marlton Golf Course would become a model, a place of outreach in a community where golf was as foreign a game as cricket or hurling. “When we’re together we talk about everything, including our faith and how blessed we have been in every part of our lives,” Jones says. “Sharing that, spreading that—that’s all part of our mission.”

They also entered the business with wide eyes, knowing there were plenty of things that they didn’t know. While successful in their own careers, these men had no expertise in the golf industry. For that, they needed another partner, someone who bought into their vision for The Marlton, as it became known.

The group found the perfect match in Jimmy Garvin. “I’ve been in the golf business for 30 years,” Garvin explains. “I was president of Golf Course Specialists, which ran all the [municipal] golf courses in Washington D.C. Prior to that, I was the general manager at Langston Golf Course, which was also operated by Golf Course Specialists.”

Garvin is the man turning the partners’ dream into a reality. “The reason Marlton Golf Course was so attractive to us is because it’s in a community where we felt like we could be a big help,” Garvin notes. “We’ve created a very active kids’ program where we bring [juniors] out and introduce them to the game. We also take a large group of kids to the Bahamas, to St. Lucia, so they can learn how to network and build relationships. That’s what it’s all about for all of us. We’re trying to create opportunities and do some good for the community.

“The mission, which has been the same since we all came together, was to be caretakers of the property, which otherwise would have been developed by now,” Garvin continues. “If that had happened, the kids in this community would never have had an opportunity to be introduced to this great game. Our goal is to make sure that as many minorities as possible have an opportunity to get involved in the game of golf.”

They’re not alone in that goal. In late 2007, a Washington political consultant named Craig Kirby met with PGA Tour commission Tim Finchem to talk about golf—or the lack thereof—in historically black colleges and universities. “What was scheduled to be a 40-minute chat turned into a four-and-half-hour intense conversation with the commissioner and his executive staff about the importance of growth and increasing diversity in the golf industry,” Kirby recalls.

Kirby’s focus couldn’t have been more spot-on. A quick look at the golf team rosters from historically black colleges and universities shows a woeful lack of African-Americans in the game, even in places where minorities should thrive. The North Carolina A&T State women’s golf team has two African-American players on an eight-woman roster. It’s hard to criticize the school, though. NCA&T is one of the few historically black colleges that even has a women’s golf program.

So, with the Tour’s help and funding from donors and foundations, Kirby formed “Golf. My Future. My Game,” which encourages juniors who are prime candidates for historically black colleges to take up golf. Marlton Golf Course is one of the cornerstone facilities for that program.

“I’ve seen Craig’s commitment, his enthusiasm,” says Sondra Williams, who enrolled her granddaughter in Kirby’s programs that bring upwards of 80 juniors at a time to Marlton for 12 weeks of training in golf and life. “[Kirby, as well as the owners of Marlton] are reaching young people of color and showing them about the game and this world early on. A sense of inclusion, belonging, is happening here. It’s taking these kids on a different journey, things that translate to all aspects of their lives, like conducting yourself in a kind, courteous manner. Plus, they’re learning a demanding game that causes you to step up.”

In a year and a half, the partners at The Marlton have improved the facilities and engaged the surrounding community, in addition to bringing back the players who had forgotten about the course. That’s allowed minority kids to get to know some of the white golfers who grew up in the neighborhood decades ago.

“It’s all about building relationships,” Turner posits. “It had always been in the back of my mind what happened all those years before (in Mississippi). I may not have been able to get on that golf course in 1995, but now I own my own golf course less than 15 minutes from the nation’s capital.” A golf course that anyone can get on, and one that’s breaking new ground in reaching an underserved population in our game.

It hasn’t been easy. The course plays 17,000 rounds a year, which isn’t a lot in the Mid-Atlantic region. The owners hope to get it up to 25,000 quickly. One strategy to achieve that goal has been to convert the grill into a sports bar, which attracts young adults and their families whether they play golf or not.

“They’re sitting inside having a meal and watching a game, but they’re also looking out the window and seeing No.1 and No.9 right outside,” Turner says. “At least some of them are thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I ought to start this. Maybe I ought to give golf a try.’ So, it’s all about exposing a generation and a group of minorities that have never been exposed to this before.”

“We know it’s not easy,” Garvin adds. “But we have a vision and a commitment. We think that those things mean a lot. Especially when you’re doing something you know is important and good for others.”

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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