In the midst of an oft-guarded game in a city with a horrific past, learn how one athlete and two sponsors rose above.
This week in Massachusetts, golf greats are competing at the 2022 US Open.
The course at Brookline’s Country Club is known for its tiny greens, narrow fairways, and abnormally thick rough. PGA pros will be pushed to the limits mentally and physically as they try to conquer the course that’s humbled so many legends before them.
Last month, Wyatt Worthington II walked the greens of the PGA Championship carrying more than his clubs. Taking to Tulsa for his first major appearance in years, the location of the links added a layer of depth that few of his peers could conjure and even fewer could relate to.
Fortunately for Wyatt, his sponsors at Eastside Golf had his back — and his feet.
In the Leather
One hundred and one years ago, Tulsa was the scene of the Black Wall Street Massacre. In May, the city hosted the PGA Championship.
The Black Wall Street Massacre happened in 1921 and still stands as one of the ugliest riots in American history. Oklahoman insecurities tied to Black excellence erupted on a 19-year-old shoe shiner accused of assaulting a white elevator operator — inciting the burning of the over 35 blocks and deaths of an estimated 75 to 300 residents.
During the PGA Championship telecasts on CBS and ESPN, 101 years later, broadcasters repeatedly summoned the historical moment. This is noteworthy as golf is a sport where the lasting legacy of racism looms large. Last month, Worthington left his own footprint in Tulsa. His fashion statement could be considered by some as symbolic, while elders might deem it loud.
“He’s the first-ever to wear the Eastside Golf x Air Jordan 4s in a major,” Eastside cofounder Earl A. Cooper says. “To have that in a major championship? To perform in those shoes says a lot when they’re trading on StockX for thousands of dollars. But for us to get back to our core and our roots is just super special.”
When considering the context of the moment, the model means measures.
In 1989, a shoe scuff signaled a lack of racial respect. In Spike Lee‘s legendary Do The Right Thing, the character Buggin’ Out takes a tire tread to his brand-new Air Jordan 4s. It causes commotion over the notion that a pair of shoes can convey culture and aspirations bigger than basketball when times are tougher than leather.
Worthington’s work with Eastside Golf might sound off stylistically, but it signals much more about golf’s future leaving behind America’s past. The wear rare hints at a rooted relationship between Black culture’s most accomplished athlete turned executive. Thankfully, for the minds behind Eastside Golf, that man happens to love life on the links.
Years ago when Eastside Golf founder Olajuwon Ajanaku was shipping shirts out of his Detroit apartment, an early fan of the movement proved to be C.J. Paul. The Hampton hooper and older brother of Phoenix Suns standout Chris Paul got his younger sibling on as an early investor. Soon after, Olajuwon and Earl were introduced to former Jordan Brand vet Gentry Humphrey.
“I probably shot in the 60s every day I was with Gentry,” Olajuwon shares. “He said, ‘I love what you guys are doing. How would you like your own shoe?’ From there? ‘Hell yeah we want our own shoe!'”
While Humphrey had seen all he had to see, the final yes had to come from the big boss: Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
“We end up having a 30-minute phone call with MJ,” Olajuwon recalls. “We’re a little nervous, but we’ve done this pitch, shit, maybe three or four hundred times by now. So, we tailor the pitch and we kill it. From there? Every time I see MJ, he knows me by name. We’ve had drinks together, had cigars together, and I look at him as a mentor.”
Today, Jordan Brand is a megaphone for the louder message Eastside Golf aims to broadcast.
“Some of the Jordans we have coming out are not golf shoes,” Olajuwon says. “It’s all about pushing the boundaries on what could be accepted as golf and what is. All of these rules were made when Black folks weren’t even allowed to play. And now we still go on by the same rules? What is golf? Let’s try to find that out, push the boundaries, and make some cool shit all at the same time.”
Often in footwear, collaborations are called “energy” projects, meant to add excitement to a silhouette brands aim to market to the masses. In this case, Eastside Golf and Jordan Brand are not just energizing a shoe.
They’re revitalizing a sport.
A New Day
Despite dire history and obstacles still ahead, Wyatt Worthington II was embraced in Oklahoma.
“When I was in Tulsa, I didn’t see too many people who looked like me,” Worthington admits. “But I felt the same love as people that look like me. I’m very blessed that people are giving me that support, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime memory. Them cheering me on and wishing nothing but the best? It’s been unbelievable.”
For Worthington to take his game to another level, it will take sponsorships from more than just Eastside Golf to fully fund his career. Playing as a PGA pro is incredibly expensive. Worthington has to cover and book all his travel, tournament entry fees, and lodging. Because of this, he still works a day job teaching golf lessons.
Sinking shots on live TV is tough enough. Could you imagine MJ moonlighting as a skills trainer amidst playing in the NBA Finals while being his own business manager? It’s a heavy load, but one that Worthington still carries. Nevertheless, fans of all ages and backgrounds are beginning to connect with his story and his sneakers.
“I can’t tell you how many comments I got from fans, like, ‘I love your shoes!'” Worthington says, beaming. “After my round, people were pulling me to the side [and] telling me they heard about my story and Eastside, so they bought a shirt from the website to support.”
“It’s thrown me for a loop,” he adds. “It’s crazy how much appreciation there is from all walks of life.”