By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Image By Willie Rose Photography
Hilton Head is known as a golfing community, but short of the Heritage, there isn’t a lot of talk about how good some of our local golfers really 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. In a golfing community, 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 golf courses 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 golfing culture that has become more than just a game, it’s become part of the tradition.
One of the perks that growing up on an island that was designed with golfing 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; growing up being surrounded by golf courses, they were 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 50’s when they were around 13 years old, motivated to make some money, became caddies at the Barony Golf Course. Sometimes surrounded by good or even 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, they found themselves surrounded by some of golf’s great players.
Gullah golfer Irving Campbell, a retired army lieutenant, said that he remembers that first Heritage when he saw all of the professional golfers. “They seemed like giants to me.” He goes on to say that as an adult, 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.”
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 NIGA, has a set schedule of tee times and has designated captains, usually lead by the best players, who coordinate each team. The original captains, Willie Young and Jeff Ferguson, at the top of their game, each had a 7 handicap. For some thirty or even fifty years later, the group is still religiously playing, 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 the enjoyment of the game, since 1994, the NIGA has been the host of the annual Native Island Golf Classic, which benefits the Isaac W. Wilborn Jr. Scholarship Fund. The scholarship is 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, says the 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.
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 the scholarship 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+ players takes place every February as part of the annual Gullah Celebration. If you would like 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.
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