Black Women in Golf: Celebrating Renee Fluker and 20 Years of Midnight Golf
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian Emeritus
Brought to you by AIG Life & Retirement
Renee Fluker, a single mother and a social worker for the State of Michigan, witnessed the effect golf had on her only son, Jason.
After returning from a tournament, he complained to his mother that none of his Black friends played golf. “He said it was unfair and that he thought I should start a program to help them learn how to play golf,” said Renee. “He went to Loyola University Chicago that August, and by October we started to form a board of directors.”
On February 12, 2001, 17 students met at Franklin-Wright Settlements -- a small community center in Detroit -- and Midnight Golf was launched.
An offshoot of the safe streets initiative Midnight Basketball, this time it was golf giving at-risk youth a safe haven.
Over 20 years, the Midnight Golf Program (MGP) has impacted 3,500 Detroit youth, with 90% of them going on to attend college. Two program graduates -- Michael Harden of Rochester Hills and Anthony Ward of Detroit -- are now PGA Members.
Midnight Golf partners have awarded more than $220,000 in scholarships.
Some 30 Michigan PGA Professionals have been the program’s “glue,” committing their evenings over the past two decades to golf lessons and bonding. Renee added mentors to teach life skills and encourage high school seniors to dedicate themselves to enrolling in college.
Jason Malone said he is “amazed” by what has become of that idea two decades earlier.
“It’s pretty surreal,” said Jason, a 38-year-old real estate investor and appraiser. “I’m grateful for the game of golf and grateful that my mom took a chance on an idea that I had, and executed on it and combined it with her passion. She had no idea what golf was about at the start, and to look at her growth, both in the game and what it has done to her as a person, is pretty unreal.”
Since 2010, the program has also distributed “Ms. Renee” college scholarships of $1,000 each. Last year, 16 were awarded. Said Renee, “Playing golf at night is impossible, unless someone shines a light. The program uses the game of golf to give young people a brighter vision of their future.”
From the 17 original “charter” members in 2001, Midnight Golf expanded to 250 students before the pandemic. The program initially accepted high school juniors and seniors, but as demand grew, the focus was put on seniors, a group that Fluker and her team of supporters agreed is often ignored.
Said MGP Communications Director Clover McFadden, “There’s a feeling by some that if a student doesn’t have it figured out by their senior year, it’s too late. We focus on seniors who want to be successful but need that extra push and support to help reach their full potential.”
During the pandemic, 200 students enrolled in a 30-week curriculum that began on October 1 runs through May 9. Four weekly classes are divided to meet health protocols -- 50 students are meeting online with Zoom online classes, while 50 are onsite receiving PGA hands on instruction.
Also attending each session at Marygrove College on West McNichols Road are six PGA Professionals. Marygrove is the third host site for the program in 20 years.
MGP is a hit in the Motor City and has received national media attention. More than 700 students applied to join the program last year; the agonizing trimming process included Zoom interviews.
Fluker, 65, retired after 35 years working for the State of Michigan. Today, Midnight Golf is her 24/7 passion. Like an Olympic torch, her flame keeps burning.
“I tell the students that I got that grit,” she said. “You know how you focus on something you really want? I prayed about it and worked hard.
“I was so determined. People would say ‘I have no money to give you.’ ‘You can’t do this, ain’t nobody going to do this for you.’ If I had to listen to what all these negative people had to say, there wouldn’t be Midnight Golf.”
Fluker has built a strong bond with PGA Professionals
“The constant is Renee Fluker. She had a passion and vision and sold it to us,” said Michigan PGA Executive Director Kevin Helm. “She values her PGA relationship so much that she wants to meet all the new Officers. She said, ‘It’s important that they know who we are.’”
Michigan PGA Teaching Professional Frank McAuliffe, who has been with the program since its inception, said he was moved by what he experienced teaching his first class. The Eastern Michigan University alum works at Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville, and is in his third season coaching the men’s and women’s golf teams at Madonna University, about 25 minutes northwest of Detroit.
“I didn’t grow up having to deal with anything even close to what these kids have had to deal with,” said McAuliffe. “It is really understanding the obstacles that these kids face that changed my life. When we go through a season, and when the kids give you a hug and say thank you, it kind of gets to you.”
In 2005, Fluker energized fundraising—highlighted by a popular “Bowl-A-Thon”— to cover the $100,000 cost of a multi-state “Road to Success” college tour for high school seniors. Now an annual event, the week-long trip during Spring Break provides an out-of-state look at institutions of higher education that include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and top-tier research universities. MGP also offers exclusive scholarship opportunities to participants sponsored by mentors and donors.
“We had one bus in 2005, and in 2019, we had six,” said Fluker. “COVID is the only thing that has stopped us this year.”
Glenn Pulice, PGA General Manager at Royal Oak (Michigan) Golf Center, has been an MGP instructor since 2014.
“I am totally amazed how the program has grown,.” said Pulice. “The way they keep the mentorship going. This isn’t just to work with them for a year, have them go on a college road trip and good luck. It’s amazing the way the mentors stick with the kids all the way through college.”
Pulice recalls one young woman student noticeably nervous prior to the Road Trip to Success tour. During practice, she confided to him that she had never been outside the boundaries of Detroit.
“When the trip ended, I spoke to her,” said Pulice. “She said it was the greatest experience ever.”
For PGA Life Member Bruce Conroy of Canton, Michigan, participating in the program is rewarding. He travels 50 miles round trip to help conduct MGP classes.
“I tell the kids, ‘You may not see the value of golf right now, but when in your careers, later in life, you might find playing golf will be invaluable.’ This has such a family atmosphere, with the kids coming from tough situations and wanting a place to go, and where they can feel like family. They get a hot meal every night. And, during the pandemic, Renee ensures that they get a hot box of food to take home.”
Jason Fluker said when he hears about the difficult circumstances many Midnight Golf students have to contend with, he counts himself “lucky to be from a loving home.”
“My mom worked two, and sometimes three, jobs to support me through my junior year at Loyola Chicago,” said Jason. “She was really my inspiration. She put me through a private high school, which was not easy for a single parent, but she did it. And I am extremely grateful for her sacrifices.
“The program had its ups and downs, but the one thing that has never faltered is my mom’s dedication to help young people. She realized early on she needed a team of individuals that have the same passion for helping young people.
“We’ve had kids who were homeless, experienced physical abuse, and kids that didn’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Jason. “We had a young man, Delshawn Fowler, who came from a big family and overslept, missing the bus to the ‘Road to Success tour.’”
Fowler’s adventure was chronicled in 2018, in the Detroit Free Press. In his frantic state, he met an Uber driver in his neighborhood who agreed to help, going over the two-hour company limit. Fowler was driven 175 miles to The Ohio State University campus in Columbus and met his Midnight Golf classmates by the buses. Fluker was there to hug him.
Today, Fowler is a pharmaceutical sales representative in Oklahoma. “Delshawn keeps in touch with us, and he was asking me, ‘How do you define success?’“ said Jason, with a chuckle. “There are hundreds of Delshawns in the program, and many success stories.”
Besides golf instruction, MGP students hear words of encouragement by mentors. McAuliffe recalls one message: “You can do whatever it is that you want to do. Don’t let anyone tell you can't do it.”
“I think kids think that there is no place to go and no opportunities,” he said. “But the message is always to never sell yourself short.”
Renee Fluker, the matriarch of a program that knows no boundaries in terms of hope, has one nagging obstacle she’s determined to resolve: Ending Midnight Golf’s facility issue. Month-to-month, she’s never sure where classes will be held.
The program that has become a Detroit high schooler’s salvation is itself homeless.
“Can you ask me what I want for our 20th birthday?” asked Renee. “A building. A Midnight Golf home.”