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Mack Champ Invitational successful in blending diversity with top-notch juniors

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Allyn Stephens has competed in numerous American Junior Golf Association events, as well as the national finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt competition at one of the game’s most iconic clubs, Augusta National. Plenty of high school tournaments, too. She even partnered with Michael Allen at the 2019 PURE Insurance Championship, a team competition that pairs First Tee members with PGA TOUR Champions veterans at venerable Pebble Beach, no less. But the Mack Champ Invitational in March was different. Very different. For once on a golf course, Stephens wasn’t in the minority. As the talented teenager looked around Memorial Park Golf Club in her native Houston that week, she saw lots of other Black and brown golfers competing in the inaugural MCI. “It was huge,” Stephens says. “It was so like mind blowing to see so many young people of color playing golf in the same tournament. It’s not normal to see something like that so it was a beautiful sight.” Stephens, who plans to play golf at Texas A&M next year, estimates that before she competed in the Mack Champ Invitational she might have known two or three other Black golfers her age and “they lived in states that were like 2,000 miles away from me.” That changed at historic Memorial Park where 109 golfers from diverse backgrounds gathered for the unique event hosted by the Cameron Champ Foundation. It’s the same course where the PGA TOUR’s best will play this week at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open. The golfers competing in the MCI represented 26 states, as well as Canada and Costa Rica. Entries for 2022 close on December 1 and already over 170 kids have applied, which is about 50 more than last year. Stephens, who loves watching Rory McIroy, Matt Wolff, Brooks Koepka, Ariya Jutanugarn and Nelly and Jessica Korda play, will be back for the second year. “I basically think it’s insane to see,” says Stephens, who was the only Black golfer competing in the DCP at Augusta National back in 2018. “I honestly didn’t think that there were that many people of color who played golf at that level. So, I mean, it was great.” Mack Champ, who died in 2019 at the age of 78 after battling stomach cancer, would certainly have been happy to hear Stephen’s assessment. His son, Jeff, who is Cameron’s father, says his dad, who learned to play golf while serving in the military, is still “always talking to me” and he knows he would be proud of the way his grandson is giving back. “My dad’s always been that kind of person and our whole family (is, too),” says Jeff Champ, who combed the Internet and social media to find talented minority golfers deserving of invitations to the tournament. “It’s one of those things. So many people help helped us get Cameron to that point to where we have to help the next kids out.” Kids like Stephens, whose family survived the trauma of Hurricane Harvey that left 4 feet of water standing in their two-story house and kept them away from home for months. She started playing golf at the age of 7, then took a 2-year hiatus before getting hooked again when her dad, Joe, who played for the Houston Rockets and is a single digit handicap, put a putting green in the backyard. Stephens joined First Tee-Greater Houston, which has nine chapters, serving more than 1,000 kids, including one at Memorial Park that offers programs four days a week. Her goals now are winning a national championship at Texas A&M, which is where she found out later, Cameron Champ, went to school, and turning pro, although earning her degree in biomedical science is a solid back-up plan. “The whole time really stands out,” Stephens says when asked about the MCI. “I met so many great people. I connected with a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a while. … The whole tournament was a great experience.” Cameron Champ, the three-time PGA TOUR winner who is himself bi-racial, was a hand’s-on host at the MCI. Over the course of the three days, he held a clinic, fielded questions from the kids, signed autographs, posed for pictures and gave out the trophies. The parents listened closely, as well. “It’s really neat because Cam can relate to those kids,” Jeff Champ says. “He was one of those kids at one time. … And one of the biggest things for our family is to share our knowledge. If I just keep everything that we’ve learned to myself, I don’t know what I would do with myself, you know? “So, we have to share our experiences, share the hard work and also explain to these families what we went through to where they understand all the different pieces. And then they have to decide what’s the best situation for their family, because every family is different.” Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters, was a virtual speaker at the banquet. Cameron Champ made his debut at Augusta National in 2020. “This is just a start for us,” Cameron Champ said that week. “Obviously we want to grow from this year each and every year and make it bigger and better for the kids. It’s all for the kids. “It’s all for their exposure — just giving them, like I said, a fun environment and to play against competition their age that are just as good as them. But then also for the ones that have success during the week, there’s also other opportunities for them to play even bigger and better events.” Glenn Weckerlin first met Cameron, Jeff and Mack Champ on the 10th tee at Del Monte Golf Club at the PURE Insurance Championship Impacting The First Tee in 2012. Cameron was the junior in the group and Mack was caddying for him. Weckerlin remembers everyone hitting their tee shots – except Cameron, who strangely held back. “And he said, well, I can’t really hit yet,” Weckerlin recalls. “… He’s a scrawny little kid in high school and, and I’m thinking, the first thought was, he was too nervous to hit. And we said, oh, okay, but don’t worry. We are all going to go out and have fun today and he’s like ‘No. No, you don’t understand. I can’t hit, because they’re still on the green.” Sure enough, Cameron proceeded to drive the green and birdie the first hole. He drove the second, as well, and made eagle. Weckerlin looked at his partner, smiled and said, in understatement, “This is going to be a good day.” But the best part for him was getting to know the Champ family, a friendship that has endured for a decade. After Cameron turned pro and decided to start a foundation, the family asked Weckerlin to serve as its chairman of the board. The organization is dedicated to unlocking the potential in the lives of young people in underserved and underrepresented communities. The MCI, which was in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic and had to be postponed for a year, is one way to help. Cameron remembers playing in a similar event for minority golfers called the Bill Dickey Invitational when he was growing up. “So, when my grandfather passed, we kind of thought, what could we do?” Cameron says. “Could we maybe start our own? It kind of went through our heads and why not? Let’s just try. So, we put it all together and it all the sponsors, volunteers, people around us — close family and friends — all came together, and we got it going.” Weckerlin said the group considered courses on the West coast – Champ is from Sacramento, California – and in Florida. But they settled on Texas, which is centrally located, and then zeroed in on Houston, where the TOUR pro now makes his home. The next piece of the puzzle was finding a golf course. So Weckerlin called Giles Kibbe, who is president of the Astros Golf Foundation, which is the sponsor and beneficiary of this week’s Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open. The Astros Golf Foundation also happened to have funded Tom Doak’s restoration and the overall renovation of Memorial Park, the sprawling municipal gem that hosts more than 60,000 rounds a year. Among the goals was to bring life to the downtown area and create opportunities for inner-city kids. “(I) said, hey, what do you think?” Weckerlin recalls. “This is what we’re trying to do. It seems like it’s really consistent with the whole point of remodeling and renovating Memorial Park to be able to do this sort of thing. “And he said, absolutely, give me the dates. And that was it. It’s one of those things where, you know, sometimes those things could have dragged out forever, but it took two seconds to say, yes, absolutely.” Even better was the reaction Kibbe, who played golf at Lamar University, had when he spent time with Weckerlin at the MCI in March. It wasn’t just the kids competing that drew him in, it was the friendships being developed and the networking among their families with shared goals. “He just shook his head and he said, ‘This is unbelievable,’” Weckerlin recalls. “The energy that’s out here and the parents and the people that are watching. “And so, we got to the last day of the tournament and he said, ‘Are you guys going to do this again?’ And I said, yeah, well, that’s the whole plan. And he said, ‘Well, is there, can we be part of it again?’” There are big plans for 2022, when the tournament will be held March 18-20 at Memorial Park. The junior-am that COVID scuttled earlier this year will finally be a part of the event, pairing a foursome of corporate leaders with one of the MCI kids. Jeff Champ and Weckerlin continue to seek MCI exemptions into other amateur events, as well. The MCI was a start, but everyone knows there is much work to be done. According to National Golf Foundation, only 18 percent of golfers today are non-Caucasian and just 3 percent are Black. And in 2020, only 2 percent of male and female golfers playing in the NCAA were Black. Even so, Weckerlin was filled with pride last summer when he played in the PURE Insurance Championship once again, and there were six juniors in the field who had played in the MCI at Memorial Park in March. He saw them hanging out together, and he saw how people were drawn to them. “And I had a big grin on my face because it just proved, it demonstrated kind of what we wanted out of the Mack Champ Invitational,” Weckerlin says. “We may not produce another Cameron, but if we can have a bunch of kids, show up, play golf, have a bunch of confidence and go on and play another tournament and get to know each other and make lifelong friends, that’s not a bad end result.”

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