DALY CITY, Calif. — Bobby Bonilla is chilling.
The baseball legend is in a golf cart, playing his background role to perfection on this mid-August afternoon at Lake Merced Golf Club. To his left, his good friend Barry Bonds chats away with a sports writer from his playing days. Bonilla, in sunglasses and a black T-shirt covering his rotund belly, leans right in lieu of a recline. One hand on the steering wheel of the cart as he puffs on a cigar behind the buzz of the festivities. He knows no one is here to see him or his superstar friend.
“Look at this,” he says, lifting his stogie-free hand toward the majesty of the setting.
Bay Area weather is showing out — 70-something degrees, hot enough to feel like California, but cool enough to not be overwhelmed — as the sun makes its way toward the Pacific Ocean on the horizon. A few clouds give the blue sky some texture above the Cypress trees and manicured fairways. But Bonilla’s excited emphasis isn’t about the weather. Instead, the fantastical experience his son is enjoying.
Roman Solomon, 17, is in a putting showdown against Stephen Curry.
“Extraordinary,” Bonilla says as he looks out on Curry’s Underrated Golf Tour, a summer tournament that showcases talented junior golfers and aims to give access and opportunities that might be unavailable to some of them in a traditionally exclusive sport.
“There’s not really enough words to even say it. This is just so enjoyable to see all this, these fresh young faces of color. We’re all about everybody, but we don’t really see this. What’s happening is extraordinary — and this is all because of Steph. We really can’t put into words what he’s doing.”
The obvious question is blaring: Why is Curry doing this?
His love of golf is undeniable. You can count on him being glued to the Ryder Cup this weekend. But nothing is stopping Curry from doing like most fanatics of fairways and just playing. He gets access to some of the best courses in the world, with just about anyone he wants. He’s already played at Augusta National and Cypress Point. He’s played with former President Barack Obama. When he hangs up his sneakers, Curry assuredly will have a wealth of sponsorship exemptions to compete in tournaments with pros, if not join a tour.
So why is he choosing to take on the tradition of golf’s exclusiveness? Why is he volunteering as a giddy pied piper for outsiders to cultivate a more inclusive space for a rising generation?
The question rings louder as Curry plops his iPhones on a circular table and takes a seat in the clubhouse of the Lake Merced Golf Club. Their cracks, chips and scratches stand out against a white tablecloth. His eyes reveal why in the moment he couldn’t care less about the phones. Curry is beat.
It is all over his face, tangible as he slumps in his chair while stealing a moment of nothing on the penultimate day of his golf tour, which spreads 11 rounds of match-play golf over five courses in two months.
He doesn’t respond verbally to a question about his fatigue levels. Just suddenly lifts his eyes, while barely lifting his head, and shoots a glance that declares, “You have no idea.” He spins one of his phones around until it settles beneath his hovering eyes. Moments later, he is summoned again. Curry shoots another glance, this one with a smile.
“Mind over matter,” he says as he gets up from the table, off to shake more hands, meet more people, then get wired up for interviews.
The answer as to why he’s doing this is actually simple. Because this is going to be his next career in some form or fashion, a natural transition for this lifelong golf addict who just happened to be more amazing at basketball. Watching Curry turn the American Century Championship tournament into a viral event over the summer was a glimpse of the future. The Warriors’ earlier-than-normal exit from the postseason in May gave Curry time to fine tune his golf game before the ACC. And he won the thing.
How good can he be when golf is his primary athletic obsession? His walk-off eagle putt was but a proclamation that we’ll find out.
Golf presents a second act that maybe even basketball doesn’t. After his unsuccessful attempts at turning Under Armour into a basketball power, especially in the sneaker world, Curry and his signature brand may have found a way to change the game in a different wing of the sports industry.
Even after Tiger Woods introduced a new audience to golf, areas of the sport are still cordoned off from the masses by hedge funds, still prone to its country club proclivities. The end of the Tiger era has created a massive void in energy, in populace, in je ne sais quoi. Curry has the audacity to try to fill it.
Because if he’s going to be in golf, Curry’s ethos won’t let him co-sign the sport’s obvious homogeneity. Since his platform clearly isn’t going away, then neither is his internal responsibility to affect change. He’s found a lane to do that in junior golf — where wealth tends to determine who advances more than ability, and assimilation can choke the fun out of a beautiful game.
Equipment, coaching, travel, fees — the cost of being good at golf is burdensome. Just to be ranked by the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA), players must compete in at least four events in a calendar year. “Strength of field” is one of the criteria, meaning players compete in tournaments featuring other ranked players.
Golf’s void created a vision. In basketball, Curry’s elite camp has seen a number of players go pro. His mission with Underrated Basketball is to find the gems who get overlooked in the recruiting process. He’s taken UConn women’s basketball star Azzi Fudd and No. 2 NBA draft pick Scoot Henderson under his wing, mentoring them in the ways of moguldom. You can bet he’s determined to help a young stud golfer out there somewhere make it pro.
“Where a lot of kids get left behind, especially in Black and Brown communities, is within that junior competitive space,” Curry said. “You have PGA Junior League, which is part of the PGA of America. You have First Tee all around the country. So kids are getting introduced to the game and they’re trying to meet them where they are in different communities. But then where do they go from there? There just hasn’t been much investment in that space. … Even getting them into certain other AJGA events and getting exposure to college coaches on both the men’s and women’s sides. There’s a lot of progress that needs to be made in that respect, too.”
Ashley Shaw is cheesing.
Her braces add a sparkle to a wide smile that points to her butterfly earrings. She adjusts the black Callaway visor, rattling the black beads and white beads stacked on her braids. They’re an homage to Venus and Serena Williams.
“She knows exactly who she is,” says Doc Shaw, Ashley’s father. “That’s imperative with us. You need to know you. You need to know your history. We don’t get our sense of what’s beautiful, we don’t get our sense of what’s right, we don’t get our sense of what’s hard work from others.”
Before she started playing volleyball and basketball and tennis (which she says is her best sport), and before her father copped a set of clubs in a pink bag for $5 at a yard sale and introduced her to golf, Ashley competed in Miss Arizona youth pageants. Smiling has always come naturally.
Here? In this setting? Happy only begins to describe it. Ashley is having too much fun. The vibes are uplifting. Here, she’s not alone. Not the black sheep who has to gird herself in the confidence instilled by her parents. Here, the game she loves is accompanied by the camaraderie she deserves.
“My personality is something that I think is different from most golfers,” she says, fiddling with her necklace. “I’m definitely a much livelier person. A lot of the really good golfers, they’re often kind of dull. Not smiling, or doing anything. I’m just a happy person.”
Ashley is a force. She’s known for being an elite ball striker for her age and has a competitive streak about her. She’s ranked No. 237 by the AJGA — 30th in the Class of 2027.
She was 13 when she won the inaugural Curry Cup — the prize for winning the Underrated Golf Tour — last September at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. She rallied to finish third at Lake Merced.
Underrated Golf Tour host and mentor Will Lowery, a popular golf personality and Golf Channel host who’s become noteworthy for his efforts to diversify the sport, invited LPGA golfer Mariah Stackhouse to check out the 2022 Underrated Golf Tour. And it was Ashley who seized Stackhouse’s attention. The instant connection felt visceral. It wasn’t just the teenager’s talent that jumped out, but the symbolism of her presence.
“She’s got a game on her,” said Stackhouse, ranked No. 500 in the Rolex World Rankings, with a 23rd-place finish at the Kroger Queen City Championship in Cincinnati earlier this month.
“She’s got distance to be so young. … This is what it’s about, getting young players like Ashley who are really good and just need a little bit more support and a little bit more opportunity.”
Stackhouse, a 29-year-old Georgia native, was once Ashley in a sense: a young Black girl who became a prodigy in a sport that didn’t feature many young Black girls. And just like her mother, Stackhouse couldn’t help but be fly, from her intricately braided natural hair to her nose ring to her meticulously selected attire — matching, brightly colored and with a distinct ATL fashion flare. In addition to growing her game, she had to navigate the junior ranks and not lose herself.
At 17, she became the youngest Black woman to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. At 20, she was the first Black woman to compete on the Curtis Cup team, the renowned women’s amateur golf competition pitting the U.S. against Great Britain and Ireland. At 22, she graduated from Stanford as a four-time All-American. At 23, she became the seventh Black woman on the LPGA Tour.
So imagine Stackhouse’s fluttering heart last year when she saw Ashley, teeming with talent and personality, an unapologetic 13-year-old with skills. The loneliness Stackhouse endured in her early days on tour made her appreciate the vibes she witnessed among the teenagers with Underrated.
“Man, those kids were loving this,” Stackhouse said. “They were happy. There was so much camaraderie. I was just beaming with pride at what I was seeing and happiness for what they were experiencing. These are the kinds of steps that actually make change.”
Stackhouse was all in with the Underrated Golf Tour. She also got her sponsor, KPMG, to get involved. The international professional services firm is now a title sponsor.
Money is the silent ruling partner of all this. That’s Curry’s strength. He put his own money up in 2019 to get Howard University’s Division I golf team up and running, with a six-year commitment to support the program. He even played in the inaugural Bison at the Beach Golf Classic, which raised more than $3 million for the program.
Curry is a money magnet. Companies want to be connected to him. CEOs want to play golf with him. Wealthy people want to be in the room with him. The appeal of the NBA’s 3-point king is expansive. This summer’s Underrated Golf Tour cost well over $4 million. It was free to all 96 golfers who competed, between 12 and 19 years old. It included travel, lodging, course access, gear and meals. The top three boys and girls also get an all-expense paid trip to play in Europe.
Curry can get sponsors. Among the 13 companies named as partners, three already feature the Warriors’ star in their commercials: CarMax, Subway and Chase.
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This is the part of the world of golf Curry understands. Having played it since he was a kid — and being a modern mogul who rubs shoulders with corporate, tech and private types — Curry knows the competition is just part of it. The tangential benefit of the game is the accompanying culture. Deals happen on golf courses. Networking happens walking fairways. Collaborations come together in clubhouses.
“I’m not a golfer,” said Paul Knopp, CEO of KPMG. “But I have noticed over my 40 years in my career that it is sort of the sport of business. That’s the one that everybody seems to play.”
That’s why Underrated Golf puts the prodigies in front of business people, celebrities, artists and golf pros. DJ Khaled hung out with them at The Park course in West Palm Beach, Fla., the first stop of the 2023 tour. Legendary instructor Butch Harmon and New York Giants tight end Darren Waller showed up at Paiute Golf Resort in Las Vegas. The 25 players who made it to the Curry Cup in the Bay, and their parents, participated in KPMG’s Leadership Development Day at Stanford. It included insight on NIL, personal branding and social media from an agent. As well as leadership lessons from Curry.
“We know they all won’t play on the professional tour,” Knopp continued. “But we can find ways to help them with affirmation and confidence and leadership development. Even if they’re not going to play golf for a career, how can we help them move from the golf course into the doctor’s office? Or become lawyers. Or become scientists. Or become businesspeople.”
Toa Ofahengaue is nodding.
Arms folded, he stares at the ground. His big brother, KJ., is breaking down their family’s strong connection with golf.
Their maternal grandfather, Sivia Wightman, came from Samoa to America for college and wound up a golf pro. He taught the game to his children. His daughter Sara, the mother of KJ and Toa, played college golf at BYU. The brothers now play at the club in Utah where their uncle is the pro. KJ is heading to Utah Tech after being recruited by Utah, San Diego State and Washington.
Their dad’s side of the family plays golf, too. Including their cousin, Tony Finau, currently 20th in the world golf rankings.
Still, the brothers didn’t dive into golf initially. KJ and Toa played AAU basketball.
“I was a bench warmer,” Toa interjects with enthusiasm, snapping out of his listening trance. “I was the best bench warmer. I was proud to ride the bench.”
KJ, 19, was the baller. Let his little brother tell it, KJ is the closest thing in Utah hoops to Kyrie Irving.
“I’ve got the best handles in the game,” KJ chimes in.
But Toa picked up golf as an adolescent and got pretty good at it. That’s when Finau came into the picture, once Toa got hooked. KJ followed little bro to golf and was a natural. At 13, he gave up AAU basketball and focused on golf.
Toa formerly talked trash to his big brother while cooking him in golf. It wasn’t long before the tables turned.
“When it first happened, it kind of hurt,” Toa says. “But I was like, ‘Wow, you’re doing good. Keep going.’ Then my mindset toward that became more like iron sharpens iron. So I was pushing him. He’s pushing me now.”
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Spend five minutes with them and Curry’s vision crystallizes. KJ and Toa are hilarious free spirits with their Gen Z tastes and distinct Polynesian fortitude. They grew up in Utah playing golf — you know they’ve gotten comfortable in their own skin. They are microcosms of a generation of golf fans not from the traditional pipelines and paradigms. They need an ambassador.
The pandemic created a surge in the sport not seen since Tiger Woods, thanks to the open air of golf and its ability to accommodate social distancing. So did “off course” golfing — entertainment-based golf venues such as indoor simulators and spots like Top Golf. Roughly one in seven Americans played golf in 2022, according to a report by the American Golf Industry Coalition. And 48 percent of all golf participants were between the ages of 6 and 34. So golf has seen an influx of participants from outside its typically confined culture.
“Golf is more than just a White sport,” says KJ, who won the second leg of the Underrated Golf Tour, at Firestone Country Club in Akron. “It’s more diverse. And we’ve got some athletes, right? That’s where the game changes. We’re bringing athletes to the game. We’re doing a lot of things better. Why not us?”
“Yeah,” Toa chimes in. “Why not us?”
“That’s why it’s important to be different,” KJ continues. “It’s just good energy and good mojo. It’s fun to be around those kind of people, right?”
Who will captivate this new generation of golfers? Who will give them a voice? Who will challenge the status quo and soften the space for their landing? Who will supply their demand for swag, for uniqueness, for freedom?
The direct economic impact of golf in 2022 was $101.7 billion, up from $84.1 billion in 2016. The golf apparel industry alone is expected to reach over $5 billion by 2033.
The more you think about it, who better than Curry? He has a massive fan base. Now he has an apparel line. He has the game. His authenticity in the space can’t be questioned.
Curry grew up playing around Black golfers — his father and other family members, other NBA players. But when he started playing junior tournaments, and three years of high school golf at Charlotte Christian, that’s when he noticed he was often the only non-White player.
When he got to the NBA, he was regularly queried (and sometimes ridiculed) by his teammates about why he played so much. It wasn’t uncommon for teammates to say they’d never been on a golf course. So Curry’s 14 NBA seasons have been a constant reminder of the access and equity issues in the sport he loves.
“It’s a lifelong work,” Curry said. “I’ve been doing this for a very, very long time. I’ve had the privilege of playing a bunch of amazing courses. I’ve met some amazing people, ambassadors of the game, people in leadership positions at some of the most exclusive courses. They’re not all bad. Everybody’s trying to figure out how to change it. Some people just don’t know how. We can help educate, open up perspectives on how to change the culture even just a little bit.”
Steph Curry was crying.
On the inside. It almost bubbled to the surface. Almost.
At the end of the final round of golf, he stood with Stackhouse and awarded the winners their Curry Cup. Roisin Scanlon, 15, won the girls’ Curry Cup. Roisin, who plays under the Irish flag, started competing at 4 and joined the Black British Golfers Association to find other youth interested in golf. Now she’s sponsored by Titleist and adidas and is one of the best young women golfers in the world at 15. The boys’ Cup went to Lucky Cruz, 16, who has verbally committed to play at the University of Houston and already has his own nonprofit, Lucky Swings, serving as a connection for sponsors and young golfers.
Then Curry announced a special surprise: The Dell Curry Scholarship — a $25,000 reward for the character they displayed on tour. KJ was announced as one winner. The other: Krishny Elwin. The 15-year-old from Puerto Rico, stunned by the news, couldn’t hold back the tears. Neither could her father.
They hugged passionately, both crying. Curry watched the whole time. Some 100 or so people were gathered at this makeshift awards ceremony under the dusk of Daly City with the ambient sounds of chatter and laughter. But for a moment, amid the chaos, Curry stood still, staring at Krishny and her dad. The recognition and prize money clearly meant the world to them.
“They almost got me,” Curry said. “I felt that.”
Another visual display of why he’s doing this.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Noah Graham, David Calvert / Getty Images)