'A Dream Come True': Mark Nance and the Origins of the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship
By Hayden Lewis, PGA
Mark Nance has seen the evolution of the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship first-hand.
If you ask Mark Nance about his golf journey, he’ll tell you humbly that there isn’t much to it.
But now, serving as the Store Manager of Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG) in Indianapolis, the journey to get to where he is has been anything but ordinary.
A PGA Professional for nearly 30 years, Nance has touched almost every corner of the golf industry. From cleaning golf carts and picking driving ranges, to serving as an Assistant Professional, Director of Golf, and even caddying for legends like Charlie Sifford, he has truly seen it all — and still can’t get enough.
An Ohio kid heads south
Nance got his start in golf the same way many others do – through the passed-down love by his grandfather.
“Growing up in the inner-city of Cleveland, I would always just want to hang out with grandpa,” recalls Nance. “And grandpa played a lot of golf.”
Their shared love for the game became infectious, and Nance couldn’t get enough, welcoming all opportunities to be around the golf course.
“One of my summer jobs was to water all 18 holes at the nearby Beechmont Country Club, so I’d go in at eight o’clock in the evening – an hour or two before dark,” says Nance. “My shift would last until four or five o’clock in the morning, so I’d go home and sleep for a few hours and then come back to play golf all day.”
In addition to his summer jobs, Nance caddied at not one, but two golf courses in the suburbs of Cleveland. While growing up and spending countless hours at nearby Highland Park Golf Course, Nance caught the eye of Jimmy Chandler – a senior member at the time serving on the board of the National Negro Golf Association’s (NNGA) Cleveland Chapter.
“I owe a lot to this group,” Nance says. “As a kid, they would be the ones who threw me a few dollars here and there to help pay for a candy bar or a hamburger while I’d spend all day practicing at Highland Park. Sometimes they would even pay for my rounds of golf.
“This group of 40-50 men really provided the support I didn’t realize I needed to pursue my dreams in golf – they were the ones who would always look out for me growing up so I could play the game.”
Even with his unmatched love for the game, Nance says he never seriously considered playing golf in college as he transitioned into high school. While he was recruited by some HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), his dream, like many other kids from Ohio, was to attend The Ohio State University – so Nance decided to put golf on the back burner and head to Columbus to wear scarlet and red.
After his first semester, Nance began to rethink his options and realized golf was what he missed the most, but Ohio State wasn’t offering him a path forward in the game.
Luckily, fate came calling for Nance and paved a new path for him.
Eddie Payton – the older brother of legendary NFL Hall of Famer, Walter Payton – was serving at the time as the head golf coach at Jackson State University and had been recruiting Nance to join his team.
“That phone call basically changed my life,” says Nance.
He set up a visit to Jackson State, noting Mississippi was not a place he thought he would ever visit – let alone go to school. Coach Payton helped Nance reimagine that dream to play golf at the next level by taking his talents to Jackson State after just one semester in Columbus.
As Nance entered this new endeavor on the golf team at Jackson State, he explains how the team dynamic began to change year by year. More players from other non-HBCU schools were being recruited to join the team.
“We wanted to be great, and our coach wanted us to be great,” explains Nance. “We were recruiting fantastic players from all over the country and Coach Payton even changed our schedule to get us more exposure to better tournaments – his dream was to get us to a National Championship. We were a great team, but we were never going to get the opportunity to play on the biggest stages because of our strength of schedule.”
A full-circle moment
Nance and Coach Payton found this to be a common issue at other HBCUs around the country. As team captain, Nance spoke up.
“I asked my coach why we can’t host a premier championship ourselves and invite all the HBCU teams? Of course Coach Payton came back with the argument of not having the money to fund an event that size.”
Nance knew exactly who to call.
“I reached out to home and the NNGA Cleveland Chapter,” he remembers. “I was able to talk to Jimmy Chandler and the same group of individuals who helped steward my love for the game at a young age. I knew they had the money and would be interested in hosting an event like this.”
Following the Jackson State University golf tournament in November of 1986, members of the NNGA and Coach Payton revisited this idea to discuss what this tournament would mean. One conversation led to another and, in the spring of 1987, the first National Minority Collegiate Championship was hosted at the same place Nance fell in love with the game – Highland Park Golf Course.
“It really was a full-circle moment for me,” says Nance. “They made it happen, and it was a dream come true for our team and other teams to get that kind of opportunity.”
This week, the 36th edition of the tournament — now the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship presented by Chase Sapphire — will be held at Shoal Creek Club and Bent Brook Golf Course in Birmingham, Alabama, May 8-10. And the Championship’s namesake speaks volumes to the transformation it's seen since its inception nearly forty years ago.
Now branded under one of the PGA of America’s strategic initiatives, PGA WORKS, the event still serves a purpose that remains true to the founders’ intent – stewarding the game and supporting student-athletes at minority colleges and universities by providing the opportunity to compete on a championship stage.
Nance’s legacy is still very much a fixture of the championship’s DNA where, for one week, he strips the title of PXG store manager and steps into the role of PGA WORKS Ambassador – a position that 17 other PGA Professionals will share throughout the Championship Week and its ancillary events. He believes the PGA of America is moving the needle from a golf industry and workforce standpoint, shining the brightest spotlight on endless opportunities for young professionals to see their future differently than they planned.
“This is one of the most important weeks of the year because I get to guide that next generation and hopefully help them see what I saw as a career opportunity that I didn’t think was possible,” notes Nance.
As one of the host sites of the 2023 Championship, Shoal Creek Club carries its own legacy where, up until 1990, the club had no Black members. Nance believes Shoal Creek is now embracing their role as a host.
“It’s exciting to see us go back there,” he says. “There is a ton of history there and not all of it is good history, but there is progress being made. Thanks to the evolution of this Championship, we’re lifting the curtain on those wins and elevating them on the biggest possible stage for these student-athletes.”
It’s not lost on Nance, however, that there was a time when HBCU student-athletes were excluded from playing in many collegiate golf events. He can recall during his time at Jackson State in the 1980s the times where he was denied access to certain golf courses. Nance even remembers waiting an entire afternoon for a facility to let him on the golf course and play a practice round while he watched others jump in front of him.
“The head pro used a few choice words and said to my face, ‘I’ll never let you on,’ so that was the reality,” he remembers.
Nance is dedicated to helping HBCU student-athletes feel a sense of belonging and is confident in the changes happening within golf, giving them a chance to see themselves as contributors and caretakers of the game..He says people of color and minorities have so many more ways to get involved in the industry – more than any other time in history.
“This Championship was designed with those players top-of-mind,” explains Nance. “It’s just the starting point and a vessel for these young athletes who may be looking for that next step. There are more people of color, more women, in roles that weren’t heard of for those groups in the late 1980s. Shoal Creek is the perfect host site in 2023 to bridge that historical gap even more.”
Furthering these efforts at a deeper level is one of the Championship's ancillary events, PGA WORKS Beyond the Green on May 7 – a career exploration event designed to educate and inspire talent from historically underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in the business of golf and beyond.
“It’s just another touchpoint for all the student-athletes and attendees to experience together,” says Nance. “There’s a lot of power in seeing what you could become – that’s what I hope PGA WORKS and this Championship can do after students leave Birmingham.
“If you think about what the folks at the NNGA did, they stepped out on a limb that not many people would step out on. Same goes for the PGA of America and how they are using PGA WORKS to take a step further in outreach and recruitment. It's an opportunity, plain and simple – which is game-changing for these student-athletes.”
From being a former player to now paving a path for the next generation of young professionals, Nance says he treats this role similar to how a father would treat his own kids.
“At the end of the week, I make sure all the students have my contact information – or at least all the coaches,” he says.
Nance sees himself in all the student-athletes who choose to play in this tournament – even if they choose to treat it as just another opportunity to play competitive golf. He’s confident this week the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship will once again serve its purpose for the teams, coaches, and students – perhaps instilling that same dream he had.
“It’s such a gift to see the students’ energy change by the end of the week,” says Nance. “Golf has given me everything and there’s no reason why it can’t do the same for these young people. Now is the time for them to become what they want.”
Learn more about the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship and PGA WORKS here.