Piedmont High School coach and co-operator of the Elevate Golf Academy, Howard Oliver, teaching several students the essentials of putting at Oakland's Metropolitan Golf Links course. Credit: Amir Aziz

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On a recent Monday in Blackhawk, the ritzy East Bay suburb of mansions scattered amid golf courses in the Mount Diablo foothills, Preston Pinkney is standing on the tee box of the 13th hole looking down the fairway to his target. His attention is suddenly broken by the approach of a couple golf carts, one of which is driven by an old friend he hasn’t seen in about 15 years.

“Sir Rob!” he shouts, acknowledging the arrival of Rob Ellenberg II, who grew up making beats and writing rap lyrics with Pinkney on the streets of Richmond, Vallejo, and Fairfield, and later in Pinkney’s Richmond studio under the PLP Productions label.

After exchanging hugs, Sir Rob whips out his cell and calls his mother, Janet, on camera phone so she can watch what’s about to happen. Pinkney attempts to regain focus on his teed up ball. 

“Look, it’s your other son!” Sir Rob exclaims, panning the cell phone from the East Bay vista to Pinkney, who shanks his ball into the rough, barely 100 yards from the tee box. 

These are the kinds of bonds Pinkney has forged while helping build the Ace Kids Golf program at Lake Chabot Golf Course in Oakland. Pinkney started by shuttling kids to the course before serving as the Ace program’s director for the last 16 years. The Oakland Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department program annually serves about 800 kids, ages 5-to-18. 

Today is the inaugural Battle at the Hawk, a charity tournament raising money for The Pinkney Foundation, which Preston co-directs with his wife, JaVonnie. The foundation teaches financial literacy and life skills to underserved youth, and provides golf access and college scholarships.

“Once I got around golf and been around the environment, it was like I’d been fooled,” said Pinkney, who didn’t have access to the game growing up in Richmond. “I never had any idea that this could be an existence, and this was the life people lived.”

Preston Pinkney takes a selfie (left to right) with Rob Ellenberg II, Adrian Davis, Kendall Murphy, and Webster Procter during the inaugural Battle at the Hawk charity tournament. Credit: Preston Pinkney

Golf is still foreign to Sir Rob, a security guard, who made the trek to Danville to support his old friend. 

One perk of organizing the Battle at the Hawk is picking your playing partners, and Pinkney has an eye for talent. On his team are Adrian Davis, a collegiate golfer who came through Pinkney’s youth academy; Kendall Murphy, who grew up playing Lake Chabot and is now a PGA teaching pro who oversees diversity, equity, and inclusion for Troon golf management; and Oakland resident Webster “Web” Procter, a former Morehouse College golfer who dabbled on professional mini tours before earning his real estate license.

In this “scramble” format, participants split into teams of four, with each team starting on a separate hole. All four teammates hit their own ball from the tee box. The team then selects the best of the four shots, and each golfer plays the next shot from that position. This continues until the ball finds the cup, making birdies and eagles possible for weekend hackers. 

Only these are no hackers.

Murphy plays conservatively and finds the fairway on this short par 4, which tempts longer hitters to try spanning the 250-yards over a creek to reach the green. “OK, we’re safe,” Murphy says, signaling for the remaining hitters to hit the daring shot in search of a rare eagle.

Collegiate golfer and Bishop O’Dowd High School graduate Adrian Davis smacks a drive at Blackhawk Country Club on March 21 during The Battle of the Hawk tournament while his scramble teammates look on. Credit: Nick Lozito

Davis and Procter pull out their drivers, the biggest and longest club in the bag.

Pinkney and I pull out our phones.

“This must be something,” exclaims Sir Rob. “I better get this on video, too!”

Davis, a slender left-hander who graduated from Bishop O’Dowd High School and participated in the Ace program when he was a student, winds up and smacks his drive—an absolute missile—over the creek and into the rough to the right of the green. Procter, a Seattle native, follows with a seed that bounds left of the green into the shrubs. 

“Watch out. There are snakes over there,” a course marshall warns.

Finding a place to play

Preston Pinkney and Adrian Davis at inaugural The Battle at the Hawk fundraiser golf tournament. Credit: Courtesy of The Pinkney Foundation

Pinkney grew up in Richmond without much interest in, or access to golf, a sport whose gatekeepers actively excluded Black people for much of its history. The PGA, the group that organizes professional golf, held a caucasian-only clause until 1961 for its members, 14 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

And while this clause is long gone, even today there are only four Black golfers currently with PGA Tour cards: Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest of all time with 15 major titles and a record-tying 82 career Tour wins; Cameron Champ, a Sacramento native with three Tour wins; Joseph Bramlett, a South Bay native and Stanford alumnus with two top 10 Tour finishes; and Harold Varner III, a North Carolina resident with two international victories. Stanford graduate Mariah Stackhouse was the lone full-time Black woman on the LPGA Tour last season.

But while pro golf lacks representation, Black golfers have long made a home on Oakland’s two 18-hole public courses: Lake Chabot, near the Oakland Zoo; and Metropolitan Golf Links (formerly Lew Galbraith Golf Course, before the Port of Oakland closed the course in the mid-1990s to dredge the land), next to the Oakland Airport.

Mid-century golfer Lucius Bateman was denied a PGA career, so he set course records across the Bay Area after settling in Oakland following service in World War II. The Mississippi native is best known for teaching kids—Bateman’s Boys, they were called—at the rundown Airway Fairways driving range near the Oakland Airport. His most famous pupil was “Champagne” Tony Lema, a Portuguese kid from Hayward who won the 1964 British Open before dying in a plane crash two years later. Lema earned his nickname by treating the media to a drink after wins.

Reola L. Freeman played golf during her service as a microbiologist in the Marines, and continued Bateman’s legacy by teaching for more than 20 years, into the 2000s. At Galbraith Golf Links, down the street from the defunct Airway Fairways, Freeman had students complete hand-written golf tests before they could play the fairways after school.

Linda Rawls was an LPGA teaching pro at Lake Chabot, which was managed by Oakland Raiders All-Pro tight end Raymond Chester for two decades, starting in 1991. Rawls often joined a group of fellow Black golfers called The Bird Kage, named after the Telegraph Avenue jazz club they co-owned and operated. Oakland sports legends Joe Morgan, Bill Russell, Jack Tatum, and Clem Daniels often joined the group for spirited rounds on Oakland’s oldest course.

Pinkney is a member of this illustrious Oakland golf community, just as dedicated as his predecessors were to helping young people experience the game. He serves on the Northern California Golf Association board of directors, and recently launched the African-American Tour Quest program to provide elite youth golfers with access to courses and top-level instruction.

A Hall of Fame gift to support Oakland youth

Ace Kids Golf coach Tony Canedo instructs youngsters on the putting green. Credit: Amir Aziz

Joe Morgan’s signature and silhouette are engraved on the Battle at the Hawk trophy. The Baseball Hall of Famer and Oakland native regularly played Lake Chabot in retirement and became friends with Pinkney, whose Ace office is in the Lake Chabot clubhouse. When Morgan died from a nerve disease at age 77 in 2020, he left a garage full of golf clubs and equipment.

Theresa Morgan knew her husband, a former baseball standout at Castlemont High and Cal State East Bay, would want his clubs to benefit Oakland youth. Months after Joe died, Theresa tracked down Pinkney. Today, more than 25 of Pinkney’s junior golfers have clubs once belonging to perhaps the greatest second baseman in baseball history. 

But Theresa kept one special set of clubs for herself.

“How did I know which set of clubs to keep?” Theresa said in a recent interview. “The one on the back of his golf cart.”

Later, Pinkney shared photos with Theresa of his Ace Kids Golf and African-American Tour Quest program participants using the gear. When Theresa saw the impact Joe’s golf clubs were making, the Blackhawk Country Club member decided she would help the Pinkneys organize the Battle at the Hawk. They hope it will be an annual tournament. Summit Bank and Kinder’s BBQ served as title sponsors for the inaugural event.

“I knew how happy Joe would be,” said Theresa, fighting back tears while taking a break from helping JaVonnie with pre-tournament activities. “He was a scratch golfer. Next to baseball, golf was everything to him. We’re still getting invitations to golf fundraisers.”

‘The secret sauce’ of golf

As Theresa works the raffle tent, Jeffrey JC Callaway holds court near his book signing table. Callaway is Pinkney’s predecessor as Ace director. He also authored Invisible Golfers: African Americans’ PGA Tour Quest in 2000, highlighting the obstacles and achievements of golfers denied access to the game Callaway grew to love and teach.

At this moment, Callaway is telling foundation board member Spencer Tyson and Preston’s father, Derrick, about his latest project, the SkeleSwing App. Callaway pulls out his phone to show a 3-dimensional skeletal simulation of his own swing that reveals, contrary to his original belief, that his back bones were properly aligned through impact. The plan is to release the app with an accompanying instructional book. After watching five or so of his own skeletal swings, Callaway tucks away the phone to start some more formal instruction.

Jeffrey “JC” Callaway, golf expert, author, and former director of Oakland’s Ace Kids Golf program. Credit: Rodger P. Allen, Sr.

“This is the secret sauce here,” Callaway proclaims, grabbing Tyson’s left wrist to finish a demonstration on the long-sought cure for the slice (a shot that sprays right for right-handed hitters). “The hands are the biggest problem in golf,” the coach says, moving his fingers down Tyson’s arm. “This is the 3-6-9 system. … Ulna, radius, deltoid. … Pronate. Supinate.” 

It’s tough to keep up with the references to particular arm and hand bones, but heads are nodding.

When not fixing swings or authoring golf history, Callaway moonlights as a musician who goes by Calla-Calla. Callaway and Pinkney met during a late 1990s recording session at Pinkney’s Richmond studio. The two produced a reggae song called “The Day the World Danced,” and Callaway doesn’t hesitate to belt out the chorus in the country club parking lot.

When Tom Williams and Henry Loubet founded Ace in 1998 with a $75,000 donation and van purchase, Callaway was hired as his first executive director. In 2000, Callaway offered the van driving position to Pinkney, and the music producer had a new side hustle of shuttling 5-to-18-year-old kids from the flatlands of Oakland to the Lake Chabot program.

“I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger,” said Pinkney, whose high school graduation was delayed by three years. “I didn’t have opportunities to play golf. I remember asking Callaway, ‘What do I do? Do I wear my sweater wrapped around my neck? How does that work? He said, ‘P, you can’t wear your hip-hop stuff to the course. And when you do your hip-hop stuff you can’t wear khakis there, so you bring a change of clothes. You just have to work it like that.’”

Ace has introduced about 8,000 kids to golf. Pinkney took over as director in 2006.

It was a 2001 trip to historic Pebble Beach Golf Links that changed Pinkney’s outlook. Driving the Ace van down 17-Mile Drive in Monterey, Pinkney and the kids played “That’s my car!” and “That’s my house!” while approaching the annual Pebble Beach Pro-Am tournament.

“We pull up to the golf course and hear this loud roar,” Pinkney recalls. “It was for Tiger Woods.” Woods had won the previous summer’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a historic 15 strokes, and fans flocked to the first Black superstar on the PGA Tour. “I can still feel the goosebumps.”

The first swings

Howard Oliver encourages students as they practice their drives. Black people and women were historically excluded from the sport. Oliver’s mentor, Reola Freeman, helped break down these barriers. Credit: Amir Aziz

Days at Blackhawk and Pebble Beach are rare for those changing the face of a mostly white sport. On the Saturday prior to the Battle at the Hawk, East Oakland native Howard Oliver is sloshing through rain-soaked fairways on the nine-hole Marina Course in San Leandro.

Oliver is hosting The Reola Cup, a three-event series in honor of his golfing mentor, Reola L. Freeman, and his Junior Varsity Flight participants have reached the third hole.

“She taught us self-reliance. How to compete,” said Oliver, 40, of the woman who shaped his swing, and life at Galbraith Golf Links. “She made sure parents were involved. It was a team effort. Anything for them kids.”

Oliver instills similar lessons in his young golfers, stopping play to address bad etiquette or explain an intricate rule. Landon, 11, has his putt clank off the center of a wavering flag stick and bound back to his feet. The boy throws up his arms in disgust and turns to Oliver.

“If I didn’t see it I wouldn’t believe it,” exclaims Oliver, scratching his beard. 

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, as anxious golfers slowly returned to the course, rules were altered to avoid contact with shared equipment. Bunkers were not raked. Golf carts eliminated. And flags were left in the hole, sometimes with styrofoam filling the cup to avoid having to reach in to grab the ball. What was once blasphemy in a sport steeped in rules and tradition had become necessary to use the course. As months wore on, normalcy returned. However, some learned they prefer keeping the flag in the hole during putts. But with winds gusting on San Francisco Bay this morning, sending the flag sticks swinging toward the sides of the cups, Landon didn’t know it was an option to pull out the flag.

“OK, this will be a teaching moment,” Oliver continues, bringing all four golfers to the center of the green. “On a windy day, the flags are going to tilt. It’s OK to take the flag out.”

Rashaan Curry watches his 11-year-old son Wyatt, who’s going through a deliberate pre-shot routine on this municipal course of mostly par-3 holes. Rashaan never had this opportunity growing up in Atlanta. He played mostly basketball and football before first hitting the links with college friends in his 20s. Curry now volunteers at Metro, where Wyatt and older brother Owen, 13, participate in the junior program. Golf provides certain lessons team sports can’t deliver.

“You have to focus through every shot and through the entire round, and that helps you as an adult,” said Curry, an Oakland resident of nearly 20 years. After a recent round of golf with his boys, Curry was walking off the green when Owen and Wyatt reminded Dad about the final display of etiquette. “They took off their hats and shook my hand after the round.”

‘They need to know they belong here’

A student learns how to properly grip a club. Credit: Amir Aziz

When the city closed Galbraith Golf Links to make way for dredging, Oliver lost a home course and junior program. He had the golf bug, though, and it hasn’t left since. After playing at St. Joseph’s High School in Alameda and Cal State Hayward, the aspiring pro took off for the golf mecca of Arizona.

After nearly a decade shedding strokes and gaining contacts, Oliver returned to East Oakland in 2011. By then, dredging was complete and Galbraith was Metro. Freeman had passed.

Oliver met his wife, Lahi, in 2012 and the couple soon moved to her home state of Hawaii. It was on the islands that Oliver had his biggest golf triumph, qualifying by a single stroke for the 2015 Mid-Amateur, a United States Golf Association championship event. But after missing the Warriors’ first title parade in nearly 50 years—Raiders season tickets were calling his name, too—Howard and Lahi returned to Oakland. Oliver currently coaches the boys and girls golf teams at Piedmont High School and co-operates Elevate Golf Academy, which hosts The Reola Cup.

The wind was howling on Metro Golf Links when I first met Oliver. The Bishop O’Dowd golf team was losing their hats on the putting green. The UC Berkeley men’s team was working to hold their long-iron shots against the stiff gusts on the practice range.

Oliver joined me for a quick nine holes before getting back to daddy duties. His 2-year-old twin sons, Howard Kúpono Oliver and Howard Kúpa’a Oliver.

My opening drive on the par-5 10th hole slices way right, swept away by gusts. Too far right to chase after. I should have paid better attention to Callaway’s “secret sauce.” Oliver flies a low-trajectory drive, keeping it out of the teeth of the wind, over bunkers and to the fairway.

It’s clear Oliver enjoys competition, and it’s no surprise he plans on playing in this year’s U.S. Open local qualifier at TPC Stonebrae in Hayward. As I look to escape the gusts after mercifully sinking putts, Oliver stays on the green to practice his short game. With the pandemic golf boom, it’s not often a player gets a course to themself.

The game doesn’t come easy. For many it’s more complicated than driving or putting.

Pinkney once asked a man from taking his Ace kids’ golf balls on the Lake Chabot driving range. “When I told him to stop, he said. ‘What are you going to do, jump me?’ As far as the culture and comfort level, it took time. Me and my patnas laugh about it all the time.”

Oliver recalls showing up for college events and getting looks that said, “Did you get on the right bus?” Now coaching at affluent Piedmont High, he sees it in reverse, too. Adults will see his Highlanders at Lake Chabot and ask why they aren’t playing on a more pristine course.

“Tee. Fairway. Green. It’s not that hard,” said Oliver, pointing to each spot in a golfer’s 18-hole journey. “They need to know they belong here. You belong here because you love it. Understanding that for a young person is tough.”

The next generation

Oakland’s Lake Chabot Golf Course, one of several affordable and accessible ranges. Credit: Amir Aziz

Back at the Battle at the Hawk, Pinkney’s scramble group has reached the 18th hole on Blackhawk’s Lake Course.

“Where’s the green?” Davis asks Pinkney, who’s caught up in a childhood story with Sir Rob.

Moments before, Davis made a poor chip on the 17th. Procter and Murphy stayed back to toss golf balls to the college player until he became comfortable with the delicate shot.

“I think it’s on that island over there,” yells Davis, having jogged down a hill from the 18th tee to see beyond a fairway that runs into a lake. Through a grove of trees down the left side of the fairway, I can make out the tiny patch of green sitting about 300 yards from the elevated tee. Yes, the hole is playing downwind. Yes, we witnessed Davis make a similar shot earlier in the round. But surely he won’t attempt to hold an island green with a driver.

Thwack!

“You’re not doing that in a tournament, are you?” I ask. “No way,” Davis says with a laugh.

Two carts head down the fairway. The group is pretty sure Davis’ ball is wet. The Cal junior heads to the green to be sure. “I think I see it!” he calls out. 

Precariously resting on the steep bank, about 3 feet from the island’s edge, is Davis’ golf ball. 

“Hey!” Davis shouts across the water, pointing with pride to his drive. Pinkney and Murphy, standing with Sir Rob, scoop their balls off the fairway and head to the green. Davis wastes no time pulling out a wedge for a 20-foot chip. He comes a few feet away from a solo eagle.

It’s a stroke of luck, one Davis would rather save for a sanctioned tournament. His fortune on the 18th at Blackhawk pales in comparison to what he’s found on Oakland’s fairways and practice tees.

Davis first played at age 9 through the Metro program, and joined Ace a year later. While attending Bishop O’Dowd, he worked summers under Pinkney to earn high school community hours. After two seasons at Monterey Peninsula College, the UC Berkeley junior now hopes to make the Golden Bears’ varsity team in the fall, perhaps on a partial scholarship. The San Leandro native would seem to have a good chance, considering he has driven two par 4s in one shot and reached a par 5 in two shots since I joined the group on the 13th tee.

“There’s something to be said for playing with people who are better than you,” said Davis, who often joined Oliver for rounds as a pre-teen at Metro, soaking in knowledge from the hardened pro. “It was nice having someone push me to get better. I’ve got this absolute stick (slang for a high-level ball-striker) here, and I’m not that good, so I want to get to where he is.”

Davis, whose father is Black and mother El Salvadorian, was often the only Black or Latinx golfer at his junior college tournaments – something he wasn’t used to playing in Oakland.

“It’s pretty surreal,” Davis said of having both Howard and Pinkney as mentors. “I take a lot from Howard on the golf side. From Preston I’ve gained confidence and learned to take initiative on things. They have different ways of approaching things. It’s cool to see. It wasn’t crazy to me, the idea of a lot of Black people playing golf and a community of Black golfers.”

Correction: Tilden Golf Course is in Berkeley, not Oakland.

Nick Lozito

Nick Lozito is a Sportswriter and designer whose work has appeared in The Oaklandside, Berkeleyside, KQED, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He is a graduate of Oakland Technical High School and Sacramento State University.