When Cameron Champ first played in the prestigious Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, his family stayed in a hotel across the street from Augusta National. Jeff Champ remembers peering in from outside the gates with his son.
Right then, they made a deal. Nobody in the family goes to Augusta National until Cameron earns his way in.
“We were hoping that my dad would still be here,” said Jeff, tearing up at the thought of the Champs making their way down Magnolia Lane for the first time. Mack Champ lived long enough to see his grandson play his way into the 2020 Masters. He was in hospice care at the family home in Sacramento some 60 miles down the road from where Cameron won his second PGA Tour title at the Safeway Open. Mack “Pops” Champ died last October of 2019 from stomach cancer at the age of 78.
“I wasn’t really playing for my grandpa,” he said. “The mindset I had was nothing else mattered.”
It was Pops who bought Cameron his first set of plastic clubs. At age 4, he’d go into his grandfather’s backyard in suburban Sacramento and try to hit whiffle balls over the top of the house. The roof was shaped like a half triangle, Cameron said, and if he could clear the first part, the balls would roll down to the other side.
“I’d just be out there by myself,” said Cameron, “going back and forth.”
Cameron, 25, grew up with Superman speed, enough to power the ball over an entire block of houses. Family finances didn’t run deep, but grit did. Pops grew up in a time when blacks couldn’t play the golf courses where he worked as a caddie on the outskirts of Houston. When Mack returned from serving overseas in Europe with a white wife named Lulu, he had to move the family to more racially tolerable California.
Cameron was also born into a biracial family. His grandfather’s stories, his legacy, stand at the heart of everything Cameron does. It’s how the Mack Champ Invitational, an elite field for minority players from across the country, came to be. The inaugural 2020 tournament in Houston was postponed to 2021, though an official date has yet to be confirmed.
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Excited to share that the @cameronchampfdn will be hosting the inaugural MACK CHAMP INVITATIONAL! March 20-22, 2020 at Memorial Park GC in Houston. This two-day event named in honor of my late grandfather and hero, will bring together the game’s best junior golfers of diverse backgrounds. Thank you to all our partners for your early support. Click the link in my bio to learn more!
“I have a very similar background to almost all of them,” Cameron said of the field. “Someone gave me a chance, and I kind of took advantage of it and it went from there.”
That someone was John Wood, a lifelong friend of Jeff’s who was caddying for Hunter Mahan at the time. It was Wood who approached Mahan about giving Cameron an exemption into his AJGA event outside of Dallas.
“I was 15,” said Champ. “I was a national nothing. No one knew who I was.”
A runner-up finish earned Champ a spot in the next AJGA event, and he entered a whole new realm of competition.
The same kind of opportunities will be on the table for kids at the inaugural MCI, which offers exemptions into events like the Western Junior, Junior Orange Bowl and Junior World Championship. A total of 16 players will earn exemptions into elite tournaments, and should NCAA COVID-19 rules allow, head coaches from Division I schools will be onsite recruiting at Memorial Park Golf Course, site of last week’s Vivint Houston Open.
“I feel Cameron has to be careful,” said Jeff. “Sometimes he feels he has the whole community on his back. That he has to do certain things to help the next kid. That can be a lot of pressure, but it’s something that you get to this level, it’s something that you have to do.
“It’s easy to walk away and do your own thing, but in our family, that’s not how we do things.”
Like Champ, Cheyenne Woods grew up playing in the Bill Dickie Invitational, a national event for minority players designed to link promising unknowns with college scholarships. Growing up, Woods said, she didn’t know there were any Black people playing golf (besides her uncle Tiger) until she showed up at her first Bill Dickie event. It was there that she met future touring pros Mariah Stackhouse, Joseph Bramlett, Ginger Howard, Sadena Parks and Harold Varner III. Her mind was blown.
“It’s important to remind kids that this is a place for you,” said Woods. “This is a place for Black people to excel. It should be the norm.”
Jeff Champ selected the original field for the MCI and wanted it to have an elite feel. A total of 60 kids from 22 states and one from Costa Rica were scheduled to compete. Those invitations will be honored for next year. To help offset costs in 2021, Cameron’s foundation will help with entry fees. The AJGA will also allow the ACE grant to help with expenses. And local organizations, like the Tee Divas and Tee Dudes, a travel club in California, are set to help youngsters like Siham and Salma Ibrahim from Culver City, California, make the trip to Houston.
Jenny Bethune, a longtime Tee Diva, helps to mentor the 20 juniors in their organization.
“In our community, we have a lot of first-generation golf parents,” said Bethune. “They know nothing about golf. They know nothing about the rules, even the tee markers. The simple things you take for granted.”
And as kids progress, as the Ibrahim sisters, whose parents immigrated from Somalia have, folks like Bethune help to educate on the organizations that provide access and competition.
The Tee Divas and Tee Dudes, for example, took their juniors on an outing to Precision Golf in Torrance. They were so awed by the data feedback, that Bethune set up an account for “Jenny’s Kids,” so that juniors can go back and dial in the wedges a couple hours a month.
“That’s the kind of thing that levels the field,” said Bethune.
Jeff Champ agrees. Last summer, the Champs took over Foothill Golf Course in Sacramento, a nine-hole track Cameron started playing at age 5. Kids can now play all day at Foothill for $2. If they can’t afford it, a barter system is in place using academic achievement or community service.
They’re reducing the course to seven holes and pouring $2 million into a two-story clubhouse, an 80-square-foot netted driving range and two indoor golf simulators.
Cameron wants to deliver the message of perseverance to junior golfers that his grandfather taught him. He also wants them to know that there are people like him who care and want to open doors.
There were times, Cameron said, that he felt uncomfortable in junior and college golf. That feeling stemmed from several areas, including family finances.
“I think that’s what held me back a lot in junior golf was that, for sure,” said Cameron. “My talent with how good I was a junior, I didn’t play as good as I possibly could have, even in college.”
Jeff said that uncomfortable feeling also stems from being the only Black family in the field at elite junior events. Pops’ journey was always in the back of their minds – how the world has changed and the ways it should keep changing.
“When I talk to manufacturers on the range, that I don’t see any minorities working here, I see that because I have passion for this,” said Jeff. “But if you don’t think about that, it just doesn’t exist in your mind. But I see it every day.”
The MCI isn’t just about developing more elite minority golfers for the professional tours; it’s about equipping more minorities to get involved in every area of the game.
Over the summer, Champ used his platform to speak out about racial injustice at the BMW Championship in Chicago in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin. In a PGA Tour video posted on social media, Champ wore a black shoe on his left foot and a white shoe on his right foot with the words “Jacob Blake” and “BLM” scripted in blue marker. During the first round, he switched it up and wrote “Papa Champ,” “BLM” and “Breonna Taylor.”
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 27, 2020
“It’s just spreading awareness and sticking by what I believe in and what I believe needs to be changed,” Champ said in the post. “And so, I’m going to do as much as I can. I’ve seen a bunch of other athletes speak out about it. It’s a situation where people don’t want to talk about it, which I get, but at the same time it’s reality. It’s what we live in.”
Cheyenne Woods believes Champ’s presence on a stage like Augusta National is important, especially for other biracial athletes.
“I think being biracial is a whole other topic in itself,” said Cheyenne. “I’m not black. I’m not white. But I’m brown, and I stand out.
“Seeing Cameron and the success that he’s had and embracing both his black and white sides, I can relate to him. I kind of know what he’s going through. I know what it’s like to kind of blend in, but also be different.”
Sean Foley, Cameron’s teacher since the age of 15, said he’s not placing any special importance on the fact that this is his first Masters. The key, Foley said, will be for Cameron to play from a sense of gratitude, reflecting on the journey that got him there.
Foley points back to the 2019 Safeway, a tournament Cameron didn’t even want to play in, telling Foley on Wednesday night that he wanted to stay home with Pops. Foley convinced him to honor his grandfather’s wish to compete.
The same conversation happened the next day. And the next.
“You’re at the top of the leaderboard,” Foley told him. “They’re going to show you all weekend. He’s going to have a chance in the last days of his life to watch his grandson. Can you make it so that he leaves knowing that you listened, and you’ve done a good job? How are you gonna act when you’re two ahead? How are you gonna act when you’re three behind? What’s he gonna see?”
Perspective is something that Pops, even in his final days, helped Cameron develop in spades.
When the Champs made that first trip to Augusta years ago, they could never have imagined a Masters with no fans. Jeff won’t even be on the grounds as players are only allowed one guest, and Cameron’s soon-to-be-bride, Jessica Birdsong, will be at his side.
Cameron will embrace the moment, knowing those who helped him realize this dream will be with him just the same.
As will those who might one day walk through doors that he helps open.