Story by Luana M. Graves Sellars + Photos by Willie Rice
Hilton Head is known as a golf community, but short of the RBC Heritage, there isn’t a lot of talk about how good some of our local golfers are. No matter how good you might think you are, one thing that people agree on is that the game requires a lot of skill. A lot of people play together on a regular basis, but a few of the local groups stand out from the rest.
At last count, there are three organized groups of black golfers on the island who have a strong dedication to the game. On any given course on any given day, Hilton Head’s links become the destination for the who’s who of the Lowcountry’s black professionals. For some of the golfers, they brought their game to an area that was already entrenched within the landscape. For others, they grew into a golf culture that has become more than just a game, it’s become part of tradition.
One of the perks of growing up on an island that was designed with golf as its focus is that eventually you’ll pick up the game. That’s what happened to a group of the island’s Gullah children. They were surrounded by golf courses and inspired to get into the game. And play they do. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Several young men from the native island community, back in the 1950s when they were around 13 years old, motivated to make money, became caddies at the Barony Golf Course. Sometimes surrounded by good or great pro golfers, they picked up tips and learned the game. They continued to caddy for years and by the time the first Heritage golf tournament came to the island in 1969, they were on the course surrounded by great players.
Gullah golfer Irving Campbell, a retired Army lieutenant, said he remembers that first Heritage where he saw the all the professional golfers. “They seemed like giants to me,” Campbell said,
That as an adult, Campbell said he understood the value of knowing how to play influenced his life. “Playing golf helped me in my career. I was able to get jobs or appointments by being around the right people on the golf course.” As a result, he taught his sons how to play. “Deals are made on the golf course,” Campbell said.
Eventually, the young caddies, became golfers and years later, began calling themselves the Native Island Golf Association. The small group of young men grew into a larger group of almost 40 players, who continue to play today.
Unlike most golfers who hit the links on occasion, the association has a set schedule of tee times and has designated captains, usually led by the best players who coordinate the team. The original captains, Willie Young and Jeff Ferguson, at the top of their game, each had a 7 handicap. For some 30 or even 50 years later, the group is still playing religiously with a group of more than 25 strong.
Today, the teams are led by captains Alex Brown, with an impressive 5 handicap and Johnny Stewart, with a 7 handicap. For the Gullah golfers, it’s not only part of what they do for their weekly enjoyment, but it’s also about the level of play and playing with a purpose.
In addition to playing for enjoyment of the game, the group has be the host of the annual Native Island Golf Classic since 1994. It benefits the Isaac W. Wilborn Jr. Scholarship Fund, named after a local retired school administrator and reverend who came to the island in 1954. Wilborn is a strong believer in education who felt the need to do more for his community. Some of the current players came directly from Wilborn’s classroom or were under his leadership at the Hilton Head Elementary School decades ago.
The Wilborn scholarship was developed to provide native island students whose scholastic achievements were deserving of financial support that they might not otherwise receive. Each year, the tournament raises enough to give out $500 scholarships to five deserving students.
In its first year, the tournament brought in 120 players selling out the field, according to tournament coordinator and original team captain Willie Young. “We want to continue to grow our numbers and would welcome some competition from other area golfers or clubs,” Young added.
At a time that Wilborn felt that he could no longer continue administering the scholarship, the players told him, “As long as our eyes are still open, we’ll continue the scholarship.” That promise has continued for the last 24 years.
Golfers from around the country come to the island to play in the tournament, and several local businesses lend financial support to the tournament, helping students to achieve their educational dreams.
The tournament of 100-plus players is held every February as part of the annual Gullah Celebration. To support the scholarship or for more information, you can find more details on Facebook at Native Island Community or by emailing NativelslandHHl@yahoo.com.