On Sunday, while most of his friends were watching the Golden State Warriors in game four of the NBA playoffs, Isaiah Lincoln, 15, was on the bucolic greens of Tilden Park Golf Course in Berkeley, working on the many details involved in a perfect golf swing.
How to get free lessons
To sign up for Golf Lessons Delivered’s free lessons for underrepresented communities, call or text Ken Washington at 510-541-4900 or sign up at golflessonsdelivered.org.
“Lead with your shoulders, not with your arms,” said Jerome Taylor, a volunteer trainer with Golf Lessons Delivered. His corrections came in rapid fire: “You need to be light on your feet. … I want you to relax your shoulders. … You have got to finish your swing.”
While Washington has nothing against the NBA — or pro football or baseball — he said they do not provide realistic opportunities. “What are the odds?” he said of young men who dream of a future in the NBA. “Most students don’t play a sport at all and most student-athletes don’t play after high school.”
Like the two trainers he recruited that day, Washington sees golf as a lifelong sport that also gives players access to opportunities that had once been the provenance of wealthy white men. Historically, many business deals and social connections have taken place on golf courses. The PGA didn’t allow Black players until 1952, so Black businessmen started their own league, the United Golfers Association in 1925.
Washington cited several factors that have historically kept underrepresented communities away. While most towns and cities have basketball courts, golf courses are often in more remote locations that require a drive and sometimes in private clubs that have been inaccessible to those without financial means. Cultural differences have also reinforced the notion that golf is primarily for whites, he said. And a lack of representation on the greens has also discouraged young people from playing.
“These kids are not seeing their fathers, their uncles and their friends playing. They never had a chance to play,” Washington said. “This can impact the number of young athletes from minority backgrounds who aspire to play competitively and therefore impact the number of minorities that participate in the sport overall.”
Yet Washington sees a positive shift in the golf industry in recent years. More Black players took to the fairways in the late 1990s, attributed to the Tiger Woods effect. Several former and current NBA players are also avid golfers, including the Warriors’ Steph Curry, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neil, also creating interest by example. And organizations like the PGA are trying to be more inclusive and diverse with programs such as the Genesis Invitational, which highlights diverse players.
Though most regional high schools, like Berkeley and Oakland, have golf teams, Washington wants to grab them earlier to develop a passion for the sport.
“I figured out early on that golf has specific advantages, especially for youngsters, especially if they start early enough,” he said. “It will really make a difference in these kids’ lives.”
GLD’s trainers also act as role models for the students. Washington, 70, now retired, worked for many years as operations director for food delivery organizations, including the Los Angeles and Orange County food banks and Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles and Berkeley.
Taylor, who grew up in Berkeley and now lives in Richmond, has been playing for 20 years. He once had his own health care staffing business and is now a medical equipment sales manager. He said he has done “a lot of business on the golf course,” which has even helped get people jobs.
“What I want to pass on to these kids is that golf opens the door,” he said.
Trainer James Branch, who lives in Martinez, has been playing for a year and a half and working with the organization almost from the beginning. He grew up in Hunters Point in San Francisco during the 1960s and ’70s but was able to “push through that grind” and get a mechanical engineering degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He now owns a Martinez real estate investment firm.
“We’re trying to get kids to see and do something that is completely different from what they’re used to,” Branch said.
That is definitely a challenge. Both Isaiah and the other player that day, Jeremiah Berry, 12, also of Oakland, are the only one of their friends to play golf. Even though both said their friends don’t understand their attraction to the sport, Isaiah said, “I would like to introduce them to it. They would like it if they tried it.”
Isaiah just finished playing freshman basketball at Oakland Tech and said that compared to basketball or football, golf “clears your mind.” He often watches videos online to improve his form.
Jeremiah, who’s homeschooled and on track to graduate high school this year, discovered golf when Washington was practicing his swing at Berkeley’s San Pablo Park. Washington asked Jeremiah if he had ever played.
“When I first tried it, I thought it was fun,” Jeremiah said.
Jeremiah’s mother, Nassiya, said golf has been a confidence builder and given her son a more positive outlook. Plus, she said, “he’s always asking about Mr. Ken.”
Isaiah’s grandmother, Leslie Pounds, said that with all the distractions young people face today, among them “the not-so-positive things they see on TV,” golf provides a focus and improves their social skills.
“Young people speak with phones now,” she said. “They need to know how to speak with people. He picks that up here.”
She also sees the volunteers as positive influences.
“You want to see the people around you that your child can emulate. These gentlemen are giving their time to Isaiah,” she said. “There’s an old saying, ‘You’ve got to see a man to be a man.’ Part of that is the camaraderie that happens on this golf course.”
Washington founded Golf Lessons Delivered in 2022 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The death of his wife, Sabrina, in April last year set him back, but he’s rebounded and is “hitting the fundraising hard.”
Everything the organization provides is free. That includes lessons with a golf pro and volunteer trainers, equipment and transportation to and from the course, if necessary, provided by Washington himself.
This is not Washington’s first foray into youth sports. He managed a pony league baseball team in Fullerton for a decade, umpired youth and adult baseball for more than 20 years in L.A. and taught fencing to youth and adults in 1989, also in Fullerton, through a nonprofit he started called “On Guard.”
Golf Lessons Delivered plays mainly in the East Bay at courses at Tilden, Franklin Canyon in Hercules and Lake Chabot in Oakland, and has also taken trips to La Jolla, Walnut Creek and San Francisco. A typical outing begins with at least minutes at the driving range, followed by another half-hour on the putting green and then a nine-hole game they play alongside their trainers.
After the lessons, the entourage paired off into carts and headed for the greens. It was, many of the adults noted, a picturesque day. Fairways were lush and green after so much rain, the terrain undulating under canopies of live oak and redwoods.
While phones are not prohibited but discouraged, the boys did not consult theirs during their three hours at the course. They had other things to focus on, like the first hole, 411 yards away.
“I didn’t think there was this much to it,” Isaiah said of the sport before he started playing. “I just thought it was about hitting a ball. Wow! It is way more than that.”