Washington,D.C.,has made headlines over the past several months for upticks in crime within the city limits. The nation’s capital has emerged as one of the country’s hot spots for carjackings, even as violent crime has waned somewhat across the U.S. What has been unique about much of the crime in the Washington area is that a disproportionate amount appears to be attributable to teenagers and young adults.
Experts say that the rise in youth crime can be chalked up to a variety of causes — desperate circumstances, a desire to make some quick cash, or the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Washington also holds the worst Black-white unemployment ratio in the entire country, according to the Economic Policy Institute think tank — with vastly disproportionate unemployment rates in wards 7 and 8, underserved and predominantly Black areas in the district.
The National Links Trust — a nonprofit whose mission is to make the largely white male sport of golf more accessible and affordable — wants to provide Washington’s youths with another option: finding themselves on the links.
“Golf is a [$101.7 billion] industry,” said David Daniels, the director of community engagement for the National Links Trust. “And there have always been barriers to entry for Black and brown people. We want to introduce minorities to the game, but also show them how they can have careers in this space.”
Examples might include “golf architects, landscaping, club manufacturing,” he said, adding that the nonprofit seeks to ask students, “How do you see yourself in golf?”
Daniels recruits for the Jack Vardaman Workforce Development Program, an internship that provides Washington youths with lifelong practical skills, job training, a source of income and scholarships. Over the summer, students meet at Langston Golf Course on Benning Road in northeastern Washington, and are taught different aspects of the sports business — from how to operate a golf course to merchandising and even agronomy. The National Links Trust also sent one lucky student to a golf tournament hosted by Tiger Woods, and he was able to play with the iconic athlete.
There’s a caddie program as well, which is run with the Western Golf Association. Daniels knows a little something about the impact that caddying can have on young people; he caddied for comedian Steve Harvey while he was still a student at Mississippi State University.
“I’m kind of a living testament to what NLT strives to be, which is like: ‘Hey, golf can really be a lifelong sport and game. And you could meet some people through the sport that can change your life,’” he said, referring to the National Links Trust.
Interns clean golf carts as part of their daily tasks.
The workforce development program is open to all students in the nation’s capital, but focuses on youths from or around Ward 5, which contains Langston Golf Course, as well as wards 7 and 8.
Divine King is one of those young people. The 18-year-old has participated in the program for the past two summers, and credits much of his growth to it.
“I learned the business of golf, how to conduct business outside of golf and how to operate the cash register as well,” he said. “[It showed me] the importance of getting to a job on time, and it also gave me the opportunity to also make money.”
King, who lives in Ward 8, began playing golf in middle school when he was introduced to the sport through the Special Olympics. His mother, Tanisha King, has seen the effects that golf and the program have had on her son, who was recently accepted to Howard University.
“The program has boosted his confidence,” she said.
“It’s given him more drive and determination to go after his goals — the fact that he applied to Howard, I didn’t know he had applied to Howard,” she added, with a laugh.
The mother believes that the workforce development program gives youths in the district an opportunity to not only make some cash, but broaden their horizons.
“Being out on the golf course can assist a lot of these children, and allow them to focus on other things,” she said.
“Golf is not a common sport amongst Black and brown kids,” she continued. “And the safe, peaceful environment is definitely a step outside of the norm from what many are experiencing. I think that’s what’s missing for a lot of kids in D.C.
“Langston is a safe space where my son is able to spend the weekends. The kids are on the green, and I really don’t have to worry about him, especially in this climate in D.C. right now.”
Divine King, along with other interns, listens during a Friday speaker session.
Before Langston opened, there was East Potomac Golf Links. It was created in 1921 as one of Washington’s first public courses, but only white people were allowed to play there. When Langston came along in 1939, it was only one of 20 public golf courses out of nearly 700 in the U.S. that serviced Black people at the time. Langston was located on the site of a city dump surrounded by trash and a sewer, with hardly any grass, and it only had nine holes for play.
“Historically, municipalities’ golf courses are where Black folks could play, but Langston, Rock Creek [Park Golf Course] and East Potomac have been neglected and underfunded,” Daniels explained.
Black golfers pushed for improvements to be made while protesting for equal access to all-white courses in Washington. Meanwhile, celebrities like legendary boxer Joe Louis would play golf at Langston, making the course a must-see for Black golfers across the country.
“Langston is a special place in D.C. I would consider it basically the home to Black golf in America,” said Damian Cosby, the executive director of the National Links Trust and a Professional Golfers’ Association of America member. “It’s a really unique golf course.”
Today, Langston and the other parks have fallen back into disrepair. In 2020, the National Links Trust began operating Langston, along with Rock Creek and East Potomac, hoping to restore the battered courses to their former glory. Cosby said that his organization’s goal is to improve the courses, little by little, so the community can take advantage of everything they have to offer.
“We’ve done a greens expansion to make the [Langston] golf course a little more playable. We’ve taken out acres and acres of invasive weeds that are along Kingman Lake and the Anacostia [River] to help turf quality, to help air flow, to help the water quality there,” Cosby said. “We’ve done sod work, and continue to work on the turf conditions at all the locations.”
Cosby hopes that when the improvements to the courses are completed, people will look to them as not only places to play golf but gathering spaces for the entire community — especially young people.
“It’s all about exposing kids who have traditionally been barred from these sorts of activities,” he explained.
“There are kids of color, Black and brown, that want to play lacrosse or fish, and do all these other things other communities have access to that traditionally inner-city kids haven’t,” he added. “We’re hoping to give them access to the game of golf.”