Bringing His Own Legacy to the Masters

For Cam Champ, his debut at Augusta National is loaded with history—starting with his grandfather's Jim Crow childhood and carrying through the turmoil of this summer.
Farrell EvansFeatured Columnist INovember 11, 2020

Cameron Champ was preparing to travel from his home in Houston to Chicago for the BMW Championship when he saw the video of Jacob Blake being shot seven times in the back by a white Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer. It was a Sunday night, August 23, and the shooting of Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, had set off protests in the streets of Kenosha, a city of 100,000 on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. Blake, clinging to his life in a hospital and paralyzed from the waist down, had been shot after police were called to an alleged domestic dispute. To many of the protesters, it was another example of excessive force by law enforcement against Black people. The names Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks were fresh on their minds as they called for justice.

The events in Kenosha were cathartic for Champ, a 25-year-old Black man who finished 24th in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings last season. Growing up with a grandfather who was raised in Jim Crow-era Texas, Champ's life had always been suffused with an appreciation for Black achievements over adversity and racism, but he was now a man with a platform to speak out against injustice. So as peaceful protests later gave way to fiery destruction in Kenosha, Champ turned inward to reckon with his place as a Black man in America.  

"The whole Jacob Blake thing just tipped me over the iceberg because people made assumptions about him because he had a criminal record," Champ says. "For me, it was just 'enough is enough.' I wanted to say something because obviously it's going to disrupt some things and people are going to be uncomfortable. Race is a touchy subject. I knew that I probably wouldn't be the first to get asked about it on the PGA Tour, but I knew that I probably would be the most vocal and the most truthful about it."

In March, Champ's focus had been on competing in his first Masters, presumably in April. He was in the field at The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, planning to make his first visit to Augusta National after the tournament. Then the full brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic hit sports when the NBA's suspended its season, triggering other sports and leagues to change course. The PGA Tour canceled many tournaments and reset others, moving the Masters to November. Instead of competing in The Players and then visiting Augusta, Champ went home to Houston. This week, his inaugural appearance at golf's mecca is the culmination of one of the most tumultuous and self-revelatory years of his life.

When Blake was shot in August, the Tour was back in progress. At the BMW Championship days later outside Chicago, Champ wore one black and one white golf shoe. With a blue pen, he wrote Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor and BLM on the heel of one of the shoes.  He had worn one black and one white shoe at a February tournament for Black History Month, but this time was different. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

"It's just spreading awareness and sticking by what I believe in and what I believe needs to be changed," he said at the tournament. "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."

In the first round of the BMW Championship, Champ played poorly, finishing seven over par. For his shoes and his performance, he took shots on social media from some who didn't like the stance he took on social justice. In a Pro Golf Weekly story with the headline "Dressed for a Protest, Cameron Champ Shoots 7-Over 77," Champ was called a "burgeoning left-wing activist." 

Champ says he wasn't surprised by that sort of reaction: "We are extremely divided as a country, because why would people disagree with me taking a stance against that level of racial injustice? 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."

While no fellow pro golfer publicly espoused the sentiments of those observers who criticized Champ, views against some aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement aren't out of step with the politics of many Tour players. In a May 2016 Sports Illustrated poll of PGA Tour and Champions Tour players, the preponderance of anti-Hillary Clinton and pro-Donald Trump answers fell in line with reports over the years that say pro golfers are overwhelmingly Republicans with conservative views. 

When the NBA, MLB, MLS, NHL and WNBA postponed games or practices after the Blake shooting, the PGA Tour released a statement in support of racial justice but did not alter its schedule. Nor did the events trigger much of a response from most of the players. Since he made his statement at the BMW in August, Champ says only three players have said anything to him about the issue.  

Champions Tour player Kirk Triplett, who has an adopted Black son, spoke in August about the Black Lives Matter sticker he put on his golf bag. 

"This seems like a good venue where this message maybe doesn't get spread as much? Golf is a very insulated game," Triplett said at the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship in Akron, Ohio. "I was affected kind of more personally this time and then it seemed like a natural thing, with having an African American son in the house and having to have these conversations. That's a conversation that I think, for people around golf, it just doesn't hit home."  

Two leagues with a similar lack of Black athletes are NASCAR and the NHL. After a noose was found at the Talladega Superspeedway in the garage of Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver on NASCAR's top circuit, all the drivers and pit-crew members showed their support by escorting his car down pit row. Wallace, who wore an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt at one race and has had "Black Lives Matter" painted on his car, previously had pressed NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its races. 

When the NHL was widely criticized for not joining with the other major U.S. leagues by canceling its activities on the Wednesday after the Blake shooting, the league reversed its course and postponed playoff games. 

"It's not just my responsibility as a minority player in the NHL to be talking about these issues," said Sharks left wing Evander Kane, a leader of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, in an interview with Sportsnet. "... Until everybody decides to take it upon themselves and maybe step away from some of their privileges to educate themselves and really fight with us, we're going to be in the same situation we are in today."

Following George Floyd's killing in May, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan pledged to listen more, to better understand the plight of Black people, but it's not a fight that is likely to be taken up widely on a tour where there are only four Black players—Tiger Woods, Joseph Bramlett, Harold Varner III and Champ—or in a golf industry that is also lily-white. (Of 29,000 certified PGA club professionals, 165 are black. The PGA of America's membership was 91 percent white in 2018.)

"All of this has just helped me realize who I am," Champ says. "A lot of guys out here try to act a certain way instead of being themselves. You see that a lot with guys not really saying what they truly mean in the media because they don't want to get bashed in social media. For me, this is ridiculous. I have to be true to myself, and that's the only way I can live with myself."

When Champ tees off Thursday at the Masters, he will be the fifth Black golfer to play in the tournament's 84-year history. The first, Lee Elder, will join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as honorary starters of next year's tournament. Augusta National has created two scholarships in Elder's name for a male and female golfer from Paine College, a historically Black college in Augusta. 

While the honors for Elder, Woods' epic victory at the 1997 Masters and the gradual acceptance of Black members have helped the club distance itself from some of its history, the symbolism of the tournament's Jim Crow origins are deeply embedded in the fabric of the club. With a heritage that evokes slavery with its name, plantation-styled clubhouse, genteel manners and ordered universe of white golfers and Black caddies and servants, the Masters has been for generations golf's symbol of the systemic racism that had made possible the shootings of Blake, Floyd and Taylor.

Less than a month after the 1970 Masters, a race riot erupted in Augusta after Charles Oatman, a 16-year-old Black boy, was beaten to death in a county jail. During the two-day riot, where much of the downtown was burned and looted, police killed six Black men, all of them shot in the back. At various times, the NAACP led protests outside of the gates of Augusta National over apartheid in South Africa and the integration of the Masters field. (Elder first played in 1975.) The club first invited a Black person—TV executive Ron Townsend—to join in 1990. This happened after Hall Thompson, an Augusta National member and founder of the Shoal Creek Club in Birmingham, shook the quiet sanctity of the country club universe when he told a reporter of his Alabama club: "We don't discriminate in every other area except for the Blacks."

Champ's paternal grandfather, Mack Champ, the man who got him started in the game, always wanted to come to Augusta with his grandson and walk down Magnolia Lane. Papa Champ died of stomach cancer last fall, one month after seeing his grandson earn his spot in the 2020 Masters with a win at the 2019 Safeway Open, his second PGA Tour title.

Cam Champ with his grandfather, Mack (center), and father, Jeff.
Cam Champ with his grandfather, Mack (center), and father, Jeff.Courtesy Champ family

To understand how Cameron made it to Augusta and his perspective on race in America is to understand the life of his grandfather. Born in 1941 in Columbus, Texas, a tiny town on the Colorado River 75 miles west of Houston, Mack Champ was one of 12 children. His father, Clyde, was a Navy vet and mechanic, and his mother, Cora, ironed clothes for local white families. During Mack's childhood, laws disenfranchised Black voters in Texas and across the South. In 1935, Columbus was the site of one of the most public lynchings in American history, as some 700 white men and women gathered around a live oak tree to watch the lynching of Ernest Collins and Benny Mitchell, two Black teenage boys alleged to have killed a white woman. The Colorado County prosecutor called the lynchings the "will of the people."

In Columbus, there was a nine-hole golf course that was off-limits to Black people unless they were caddies or otherwise worked at the club. Mack followed his older brother, Clyde, into caddying at the club and earned 75 cents per loop. Fashioning clubs out of tire irons and pieces of leather, the two brothers would hit balls in an open field along the railroad tracks. Mack had aspirations of attending Prairie View A&M University to play football and run track, but he ended up enlisting in the Air Force. He didn't play his first round of golf until 1963, as a 22-year-old airman stationed in Bremerhaven, Germany. 

On R&R in Copenhagen, Denmark, Mack met his future wife, Lulu, a Denmark native. "It took 18 months for my dad to be able to marry my mom," says Jeff Champ, Cameron's father. "My dad had to go over his racist boss who did not want a Black man marrying a white woman to get the paperwork done for the marriage."

Jeff Champ hands off a phone to Cam so he can talk to his grandfather, Mack, after Cam won the Safeway Open in September 2019.
Jeff Champ hands off a phone to Cam so he can talk to his grandfather, Mack, after Cam won the Safeway Open in September 2019.Eric Risberg/Associated Press

When Mack was set to return from Europe to the United States after the birth of Jeff, he wanted to be stationed near his family in Texas. But Texas was one of 16 Southern states with an anti-miscegenation law prohibiting marriage between Black and white people, until the 1967 Loving decision in the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the laws. 

"Dad was told that he could go to jail if he took a white woman off the base in Texas," Jeff says. "That's how we ended up in California."  

Black soldiers who returned from Europe with white wives were given what was called compassionate reassignment, where they were sent to locations that were more accepting of interracial marriages. Mack went to Fort Ord on Monterey Bay in California.

Mack was a self-taught player who learned how to swing the club from reading books like Sam Snead's Natural Golf. In the late '60s, Mack purchased a set of Ping irons, his first brand-new set. When he retired from the military in the early '80s to the Sacramento area, he continued to play golf at the Foothill Golf Course, a few miles from his home in Sacramento County. It was in Mack's backyard where Cameron was introduced to the game of golf at around two years old.

"My dad got him going, and by the time Cameron was seven years old, I thought that he would one day end up on the PGA Tour," says Jeff, who had been a minor league baseball catcher. "He had special hand-eye coordination and just a skill for hitting the golf ball." 

Over the years, Cameron had a smattering of lessons but nothing really serious until he was 15 and began working with renowned instructor Sean Foley, whose client list has included Tiger Woods and Justin Rose.

Upon joining the PGA Tour in 2018, after a stellar amateur career that included a spot on the 2017 U.S. Walker Cup team and elite results at Texas A&M, Champ quickly established himself as one of the brightest young stars in the pro game and one of its longest hitters. 

In the 2018-19 season, he finished in the top 25 six times in 26 starts, including a victory at the Sanderson Farms Championship, and led the Tour in driving distance. Last season, he had 10 top-25 finishes in 20 starts, including the Safeway win, and finished second in driving distance with a 322-yard average. He comes into the Masters off an eighth-place finish in his most recent tournament, the Zozo Championship. 

"Physically, Cam is the most prodigious athlete to ever play golf," Foley says. "Cameron's next five years are about how passionate he can be about getting better from 150 yards [into] the green. The stuff that he does well, you couldn't teach to anyone else. So the key is to help him with the things that everyone can do."

Champ's statistics from the 2019-20 season bear that out. In the PGA Tour's shots-gained statistics, Champ finished second off-the-tee, 131st in approach-to-green, 179th in around-the-green and 136th in putting.

Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson sees a lot of himself in Champ. 

"He's so talented and athletic," says Watson, who has taken Champ under his wing. "When you look at his upbringing, he's a very kind-hearted person. He battles some of the emotions that I battle. He's reached out to me on some mental stuff, and I've tried to be there for him as I have gotten to know his whole family."

Champ hits toward the 10th green at Augusta National during a practice round this week.
Champ hits toward the 10th green at Augusta National during a practice round this week.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

At his second career major, the PGA Championship in August, Champ shared the lead eight holes into the final round before stumbling. He ended up 10th.

"For it being my first time in that situation, I think I handled myself great," Champ said. "If I don't [double-bogey] nine, I could have stayed in contention for the rest of the round. I hit one bad shot all week, at the wrong time."

The top-10 at the PGA and that 2019 win at the Safeway were enough to get Champ into the year-end Tour Championship in Atlanta at East Lake, where he finished 24th in the season-long FedEx race. Here in a cradle of the civil rights movement, a few miles from where Martin Luther King Jr. pastored, Cameron wore his black shoe and white shoe with the social justice messages on the heels. In another, non-COVID year, Champ might've tacked on a scouting mission to Augusta National, two hours away.

Neither Jeff nor Mack could see clearly the Masters in Cameron's future when he was a little boy becoming a successful junior in the Sacramento area, but by his early teens, they could see a path to Magnolia Lane. When Cameron was 15 years old, a belief began to mature during a trip to Augusta National during a junior invitational at Sage Valley, a ritzy private club across the state line in South Carolina. They couldn't see much of the Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones gem. On the drive away from the club, Jeff had an epiphany.

"Cam, you've had to earn everything in this game," he told his son. "Why don't we do the same with Augusta?" They made a pact then that no one in the family would step foot on the grounds of Augusta National until Cameron had earned a place in the tournament.

That time has finally come for Champ this week, although his parents, Jeff and Lisa, and sister, Madison, cannot join him because of the pandemic. His walk down Magnolia Lane is just the latest part of his grandfather's legacy that the Champs are carrying on through golf. There's the Mack Champ Invitational, a tournament that will focus on talented junior players of color from diverse backgrounds. Since turning pro in 2018, Cameron has started with Jeff the Cameron Champ Foundation, which combines golf, STEM, mentoring and tutoring for underserved youth in the Sacramento area. The foundation's base is the Foothill Golf Course, the nine-hole par-three track where Cameron learned to play and beloved by Mack.

"I would love to see more kids get the same opportunity that Cameron got," Jeff says. "Does that mean they become a professional golfer, do they go get a college education or attend a trade school? That's up to them. But our thought was how can we use the game to help our community." 

For the Champ family, the effort of the foundation is connected to the legacy of Mack Champ and the path that he blazed for Cameron in the game of golf. Cameron understands not just what the walk down Magnolia Lane represents for his journey in golf, but also what it means for the men and women of his grandfather's generation who were never afforded certain opportunities because of the color of their skin. 

Champ plans to memorialize his grandfather with an arm tattoo that includes images and scripture evoking Mack and his life. Yet he already embodies the history of his grandfather and the legacy of racism that has shaped the tragedies of Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many Black people.   

"My granddad always wanted to come to the Masters," Cameron says. "When he was my age, that wasn't really a possibility for him. Now I get to walk down Magnolia Lane for the both of us."


Farrell Evans has covered golf for Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com and Golf Magazine. With PGA Tour veteran Bo Van Pelt, he is the co-host of the podcast Both Sides of the Ball. Follow him on Twitter @Farrellevans75 and @boandfarrell.


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