PENSACOLA, Fla. – Any day now, he figures he could be a “Jeopardy!” question. He can picture host Alex Trebek saying, “He was the last black to earn his PGA Tour card at Tour Qualifying School.”
Who is . . . Adrian Stills.
Would you have been able to buzz in with the answer? Better yet, would you believe he achieved this feat 25 years ago?
This is the story of Stills, a child with a dream to play on Tour, a man for whom 108 holes wasn’t enough to earn his spot in 1985. He is tired of being the answer to what he calls the ultimate golf Trivial Pursuit question. This is the picture that Stills, who turns 52 this month, paints to a banquet hall filled with 250 black golfers in Denver this summer.
He laughs whenever he tosses out his standby, the Trivial Pursuit line. The self-deprecating humor masks a combination of pride and pain – pride in his accomplishment; disbelief that no black has matched his feat since. But there’s something else, too, in his words and actions: a sense of hope.
Stills played the Tour in 1986. Since then, Tiger Woods bypassed Q-School by winning, and others, such as Tim O’Neal, have come tantalizingly close to getting a card. But Woods was the only black to play on the Tour this season. (Madalitso Muthiya of Zambia had conditional Nationwide Tour status and entered 14 events.)
When: Dec. 1-6 (108 holes)
Where: Orange County National (Crooked Cat and Panther Lake), Winter Garden, Fla.
What’s at stake: 25 PGA Tour cards for 2011 (next 50 and ties earn full Nationwide Tour status; remainder of field receives conditional Nationwide status).
“It’s hard to fathom,” said Mike Cooper, The First Tee’s director of southeast regional affairs. “We’re virtually invisible when you talk about African-American participation in the professional game.”
Stills can recite all the reasons why no other blacks have survived Q-School – some legitimate, some excuses – because he’s lived it. Tired of standing on the sidelines and enduring the same conversation of failure each year, Stills joined Advocates USA, a nonprofit group of like-minded black men poised to make a difference.
Can a grassroots effort help solve the scarcity of blacks on Tour?
Stills thinks so. He’s counting on Joseph Bramlett, a recent graduate from Stanford University and the lone black golfer to advance to this year’s Q-School final exams, set to begin Dec. 1 at Orange County National in Winter Garden, Fla. If not this year, Stills is hopeful that someone, preferably sooner than later, will make his “Jeopardy!” question obsolete.
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At 28, Stills qualified for the PGA Tour in dramatic fashion. He finished in a six-way tie for the 46th spot at 4-over 434. Back then, the top 50 scorers after the 108-hole marathon earned cards, meaning Stills was headed for a 6-for-5 playoff.
“So there I am, first off the tee in front of 2,000 people lining the fairway, with all kinds of thoughts running through my head – most of them negative,” he told the Pensacola News Journal back then. “One hole for your career.”
When he survived, he told Golfweek, “I’m past cloud nine. I’m on cloud 59. I’m just so thrilled. This has been my goal since I was 10 years old.”
That’s when Stills’ father began dropping him off at Osceola Golf Course, a hardscrabble municipal, and told him that Jack Nicklaus hit 1,000 balls a day, and he should, too. Only trouble was, Osceola didn’t have a range. Stills had 50 shag balls, stood underneath a shady oak tree, aimed toward the 15th green and hit them, found them, and hit them again. He did that every day until he was 16 or 17 and began working in the pro shop.
Stills took a rare day off to attend the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola with his dad, where they saw Lee Elder become the first black player to qualify for the Masters. In perhaps the most poignant moment of “Uneven Fairways,” a documentary that chronicled the story of blacks and golf, Stills recalls leaning against his father’s shoulders to see the winning putt.
“I remember my dad going into tears,” Stills said. He paused, his eyes starting to glisten, asked for a moment and held back the tears forming at the memory. “It motivated me a lot.”
With some daylight still left to practice that evening, Stills asked his father to drop him at Osceola, and he resumed perfecting his baby cut under the oak tree.
Stills became good enough to earn a scholarship to South Carolina State, where he was a four-time NAIA All-American, and he won 31 mini-tour events.
Stills was one of three black golfers – Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe were the others – to compete on the Tour in 1986. Stills made only 11 cuts in 23 events and returned to Q-School.
In four more attempts, he never regained his card. Stills worked as head instructor at the Grand Cypress Academy of Golf in Orlando for 12 years. When his mother grew ill in 1999, he moved closer to home before returning to launch The First Tee of Pensacola in 2004. He now serves as director of golf at his beloved Osceola.
“Never, never, never,” he said, a wide smile filling his face, “did I think I would be back here.”
He’s overseeing an upcoming renovation project that will build the practice tee he never had. He’s proud of his effort to build a platform for minority golfers to succeed in the professional ranks.
“I never realized how hard making the Tour was supposed to be,” Stills said. “I never thought I wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t see it any other way.”
Stills joined the Advocates, a 6-year-old 501(c)(3) organization comprised by black men from across the country. From its beginnings as a dozen guys who liked golf and bonded in Palm Springs, Calif., Advocates membership has grown to 100-plus men who meet twice a year, mentor youngsters and have contributed more than $300,000 to charities and scholarships.
After watching the documentary “Uneven Fairways,” they decided to re-create a place to play for young, aspiring minority golfers. Stills developed the blueprint.
“We thought it would be great to revive something like the old United Negro Golf Association,” said Ken Bentley, an Advocates founder and active board member.
They launched the Advocates Invitational Tour, a three-tournament series for black golfers that debuted this year, with the incentive of a scholarship to fund the Q-School hopes of one promising young black golfer. The Nestlé USA Foundation, where Bentley is vice president of community affairs, has agreed to sponsor the tour for five years.
Events were held in Tampa, Denver and Los Angeles, with an average of 30 contestants. Three events are scheduled for 2011, with the winner’s share growing to $7,500, and the goal is to expand to 10-15 events. At the Los Angeles awards ceremony, the tournament committee presented Vincent Johnson with the Adrian Stills Award and the $5,000 check for Q-School that came with it. (Johnson failed to advance past the first stage.)
“We didn’t even tell Adrian we were naming it after him,” Bentley said. “We just sent out an announcement.”
Having competed in the Advocates tournaments, Stills is optimistic there are several prospects. In addition to Johnson, he ticks off the names of George Bradford, Kevin Hall and Joseph Bramlett. Stills’ oldest son, Justin, is a freshman on the Jackson State University golf team. His youngest, Joey, is a high school sophomore with a 4 handicap. Both dream of entering Q-School someday.
Could one of his sons be next?
“I hope it won’t be that long a wait,” he said. “But it could be, and if it is, that would be one wild story, wouldn’t it now?”