AKRON, Ohio — The excitement escalated as soon as the golf cart drove by.
“Yo, that’s Steph,” proclaimed a young boy, playing the role of a modern-day Paul Revere and alerting everyone within earshot of the anticipated arrival.
“Oh my god, that’s him,” a group of giddy girls excitedly confirmed as they took out their phones to get digital documentation of the passing cart and its popular passenger.
A makeshift gallery eventually gathered around Firestone Country Club’s 18th green, anticipating NBA star Stephen Curry’s appearance. Where fans once watched Tiger Woods dominate the competition, they were now clamoring for the opportunity to see Curry. Kids in black-and-white polos with UNDERRATED logos and grown men in blue Golden State Warriors T-shirts inched closer in the hopes of snapping a picture, making eye contact or actually getting the opportunity to speak with one of basketball’s biggest stars.
Despite the thunderclouds creeping in overhead, the opportunity to see the four-time NBA champion in the city where he was born was cause for excitement. Curry returned not just to accept the Kaulig Companies Championship’s Ambassador of Golf Award – an honor previously bestowed on Condoleezza Rice, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and three former U.S. Presidents – but also to see his UNDERRATED Golf achieve its mission of providing equity, access and opportunity to competitors in the game that he loves so dearly.
“(Curry)’s just a great guy. He’s an all-around great guy and is really personable,” said 17-year-old Julia Vollmer, who won the girls’ competition by five strokes with scores of 69 and 72 at Firestone, site of this week’s Kaulig Companies Championship on PGA TOUR Champions. “Some people can put things on and never come out and show their face, but he does and takes time out of his busy schedule to do that.
“I think it’s a really impressive and humbling thing. He’s a really good role model for all of us.”
Equity, access and opportunity
Known for his basketball prowess and success, Wardell Stephen Curry II wasn’t just popping in to say “hello” to his hometown last Saturday.
Not only does Curry — who boasts a 0.3 handicap index that peaked at +1.3 — dedicate his time off the basketball court to improving his golf game, which he says is a good way to “scratch the competitive itch,” but also one of basketball’s all-time best shooters has no problem assisting others, especially the next generation of student-athletes.
Overlooked and underrated as a three-star basketball recruit out of high school, Curry went on to star for Davidson College before winning four NBA titles and two NBA MVPs with the Warriors. He was inspired by that infamous moniker to create UNDERRATED Golf in 2019 as a basketball showcase event for players ranked as three-star recruits or lower who might not have otherwise been scouted by college coaches.
The nine-time NBA All-Star and two-time scoring champion, who began playing golf when he was 10, took things one step further by expanding to UNDERRATED Golf in 2021.
“I’ve been blessed throughout my life in terms of people who believed in me and supported me in whatever I was passionate about — not just sports, but any other interests that I had — so that confidence that you have from that is contagious,” Curry told PGATOUR.COM. “You can move mountains with that.
“If we can be that for the next generation in all different facets of their lives in terms of our foundation, Eat.Learn.Play., by providing necessary resources for them to live a healthy and happy childhood to what we’re doing in the golf space and basketball space, it’s all necessary and I’m fully committed to maximizing my platform when it comes to that and finding ways to continue to give back and make that a priority while understanding this is a lifelong journey.
“Basketball’s going to end at some point — hopefully not too soon — but the opportunities we’ve been able to establish off the court will be a part of my life goal for the long run, in terms of giving back.”
Not only is Curry creating more opportunities and resources for underserved golfers through UNDERRATED, but in August 2019, he teamed up with Howard University to announce the school would add NCAA Division I teams in men’s and women’s golf beginning with the 2020-21 school year. Curry provided full funding of both teams for six years to help the HBCU regain its status as a Division I competitor. Since his initial $6 million donation revived the university’s golf program after 40 years of being dormant, the Bison have won two of the past three Division I HBCU National at the PGA Works Collegiate Championship.
In November 2020, Curry teamed up with Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning to participate in The Match: Champions for Change, a charity golf event against NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and six-time major champion Phil Mickelson that raised $6.4 million for HBCUs along with four million meals for Feeding America.
As acknowledgement of his efforts to help bring equity and diversity to the game of golf, Curry was given the 2023 Ambassador of Golf Award by the Kaulig Companies Championship, PGA TOUR Champions and Northern Ohio Golf Charities Foundation in a ceremony held at Firestone Country Club on July 8.
“Surreal probably doesn’t do it justice, … in terms of things that I’ve been able to do in golf, my passion,” Curry said. “Obviously I love to play first and foremost, but trying to find ways to leverage the platform and the space and bring amazing partners together to do things that can create opportunities for the next generation to pursue golf at the highest level and open up the world of golf for kids who deserve it. Blessed to be able to accomplish what we’ve accomplished so far, but really I just feel like we’re getting started. It’s a great honor and encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing.
“That list (of past Ambassador of Golf recipients) is insane in terms of the names that are on there. Those are titans of the golf world — major champions, hall of famers, presidents. I think it’s one of those honors you accept and appreciate and are honored, but again, it’s just encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Getting into golf
Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1988 while Wardell “Dell” Curry Sr. was playing in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stephen and younger brother Seth, who was born two years later, grew up in North Carolina after their father was selected No. 2 overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1988 NBA expansion draft.
Dell, who played with the franchise for a decade, would bring Stephen to the golf course with him, letting his eldest son ride around in the cart and practice putting. When he wasn’t working on his craft on the hardcourt, Curry could be found at the local public golf course.
While basketball would be Curry’s career and help give him a platform, his interest and investment in golf never wavered. Curry and former teammate Andre Iguodala even played 18 holes to unwind and reset as the Warriors faced a 2-1 deficit to the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Turns out, time on the course helped on the court as the duo guided Golden State to three straight wins to take the series en route to winning the 2015 NBA championship. Iguodala was named the NBA Finals MVP after Curry had earned the regular-season honor.
Not only did Warriors head coach Steve Kerr encourage his players to play golf as a way to get their minds right, but he also promised — and delivered — the duo a round at Augusta National Golf Club the following year if they won the championship.
“I think sometimes the best thing to do is to get away from the gym and do whatever it is you do that relaxes you,” Kerr said in 2015. “For those guys, I know it’s golf. The other guys, it might just be go out to dinner, see a movie, whatever.”
Golf is a hobby and competitive outlet for Curry. It’s also a passion the sharpshooting point guard wants to share by doing all he can to make the sport more accessible for the next generation.
According to the National Golf Foundation, a record 41.1 million Americans aged 6 or older played both on-course and off-course golf in 2022, while a record 3.3 million people played on a golf course for the first time. Newcomers to golf also continue to be more diverse than the overall participation base, with beginners 45% more likely to be non-White and 35% more likely to be female, compared to current golfers.
But with less than 2% of all golfers being Black or Latino, according to UNDERRATED’s website, Curry and golf personality/host Will Lowery brainstormed how they could change the face of golf, and thus, UNDERRATED Golf was born. To help make the game more accessible, UNDERRATED pays all travel costs for the competitors and one parent.
The tour, which is open to junior golfers ages 12-18, held four tournaments in its inaugural year starting in Chicago and ending with the top 24 boys and girls competing for the first-ever Curry Cup at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.
Backed by partners including KPMG, Callaway, United, the PGA TOUR and CDW, UNDERRATED Golf heads to Paiute Golf Course in Las Vegas (July 18-20) and Chambers Bay in Tacoma, Washington, (August 7-9) this summer before the second Curry Cup (August 20-23) at Lake Merced in San Francisco.
“These young men and women are extremely talented, and the thing about golf (is that) equity, access and opportunity are much needed and to leverage as many resources as possible towards delivering that towards these kids is the mission we’re on,” Curry said. “It’s been an amazing journey so far to know there’s kids who have so much talent but get overlooked and don’t really have the access to the necessary pieces that can help them accomplish golf at the highest level.
“Our goal is hopefully we have some representation on the LPGA and PGA TOUR, but more than that, opening up the world of golf because there’s so much opportunity there in terms of where this game can take you in the business world on and off the course.”
“We’re proud to have a strong partnership with Stephen, and over the past several years we’ve seen the positive impact that he’s making through the game of golf,” said Nick McInally, Callaway VP of Global Marketing. “From the growth of the Howard Golf Program to the development of the Underrated Tour, he’s providing tremendous opportunities for young players both on and off the course. We share Stephen’s passion for these initiatives and are delighted to be able to support them along with a variety of other activations, as we look to help grow the game beyond its traditional audience.”
Shot in the dark
After awarding Vollmer and KJ Ofahengaue for their victories at Firestone CC on July 8, Curry made a surprise announcement: He wanted to recreate Tiger Woods’ epic “shot in the dark” that helped propel him to the 2000 NEC Invitational. In near-darkness after a storm delay, Woods hit an 8-iron from 168 yards to within 2 feet to seal an 11-stroke victory during his most dominant season.
While Curry wasn’t going up against the same elements, though a looming storm was on its way, he encouraged all the UNDERRATED players in attendance to follow him to the exact spot where Woods hit his memorable shot, which is marked by a plaque in the fairway.
With a gallery of young golfers carrying their phones in hand behind him, Curry tried five times to replicate Woods’ feat without being able to do so. Certainly not defeated, Curry huddled up the junior golfers for a pep talk, explaining how them just being there was a big deal and how he hopes UNDERRATED “can be a small part of their journey.”
After posing for a group photo, Curry and Co. walked back toward the 18th green, taking selfies, offering words of encouragement and signing everything from hats and visors to cell phone cases.
“I’m just really grateful to be here,” said Vollmer, a rising high school senior who is committed to play golf at Abilene Christian University in Texas. “These are some of the best courses in the nation, and when I tell people I’m going to Ohio to play Firestone Country Club, they’re like, ‘Really?’
“You don’t just get that opportunity. We’re playing Chambers Bay in August, too. Really some of the greatest courses you can play in the U.S.”
While the 35-year-old Curry, who signed a four-year, $215 million extension with the Warriors in August 2021, doesn’t plan on leaving basketball anytime soon, he knows eventually his playing career will come to an end.
After he retires from the NBA, no one would be surprised to see him try to become a professional golfer. Afterall, at 50 years old he’d be eligible to play on the Champions Tour.
“I have the utmost respect for the level of golf the guys on the Champions Tour play,” Curry said. “I would hope that in the next 15 years, if I can get my game to that level, then maybe that is a goal of mine. I was talking to Billy Andrade earlier. I met him back in 2009 after my rookie year, and he mentioned he was gearing up for his Champions Tour experience and just seeing his career on that level.
“He beat me halfway to Sunday when we played together back in the day, so I know there’s a big gap between where I’m at and where I need to be for that, but I’d love to go for it for sure.”
And if he needs any words of encouragement or support, Curry’s got the hundreds of junior basketball players and golfers he’s helped on the path to achieving their dreams who would gladly repay the favor at a moment’s notice.
Source : PGA Tour