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Since she moved from Pearland, Texas, to D.C. earlier this summer, first-year Howard University student Kendall Jackson and her father, Maurice, talk on the phone several times a day. They chat about her classes, what she had for lunch, and recap her golf practices. And nearly every time, before they hang up, Maurice reminds his daughter of one thing.
“I’ll call him in between class and he’s like, ‘Kendall, you know you’re making history, right?’” Jackson says. “I’m like, ‘I know. But I never really feel like it.’ It’s overwhelming, but in the best way possible.”
The 18-year-old is one of four first-year students in Howard University’s Division I women’s golf program that will compete for the first time this fall. In 2019, Howard announced that it would be launching a Division I men’s and women’s varsity golf program for the first time in school history with financial support from NBA superstar Stephen Curry. The Bison previously only had Division II and intramural club teams for golf.
Led by coach Sam Puryear, the Howard women’s golf team consists of eight players hailing from all around the country, and is scheduled to compete at several fall invitationals through October. “All these ladies have the ability to do some really special things,” says Puryear, whose previous coaching stops include Stanford University and Michigan State University.
Kendall is attending Howard on partial athletic and academic scholarships. While her golf skills got her to this point, she didn’t always enjoy the sport. Maurice first signed Kendall up for a program through First Tee – Greater Houston when she was 6. The nonprofit aims to teach young people life skills through golf. At the time, Kendall was already participating in karate, an activity she preferred.
“I enjoyed the First Tee program. I did not like golf itself,” Kendall says. “I just thought it was really slow and really boring, and I’d rather be at home watching TV.”
But as Kendall played, she realized she had some skill for the game. She could hit the ball pretty far, and one of the First Tee instructors told her family she had the potential to “possibly play at the college level,” Maurice says. He soon figured out that golf could be a pathway for Kendall, an only child, to receive a college scholarship. Maurice moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to Texas to play football on scholarship at Prairie View A&M University before transferring to Texas Southern University, where he played alongside Pro Football Hall of Fame member Michael Strahan. Maurice wanted his daughter to share in his experience of being on a college team.
“Knowing that at that point in time, when I started her, that a lot of golf scholarships for girls were going unused, I was looking at how best as an avenue to make sure that A) she attended college, and then B) if she could attend a college and be on some type of athletic scholarship,” he says.
Kendall didn’t figure out her father’s plans until she was in high school, but by that time, golf had become her passion. Maurice says that his daughter could beat him in a round of golf by the time she was 13, and around then they had an option to attend one of two local high schools. The Jacksons chose Pearland High School because it had a better golf program, Maurice says.
At Pearland, Kendall quickly established herself as one of the school’s best ever golfers. In 2018, as a freshman, she became the first golfer from her school to qualify for the Class 6A state girls golf tournament. She didn’t make the cut her sophomore year and the COVID-19 pandemic ended her junior season early, but this past April, Kendall returned to the state tournament by rallying on the back nine in the regional tournament. Only the top three individual regional finishers advanced to the state tournament.
“On the back nine, day two, this was the absolute most laser focused I have ever been on the golf course,” Kendall says. “I was able to shoot 4-under for a total of 5-under 67 to move from like 20th overall to third place and qualify for states.”
Puryear already knew by then what Kendall could do on the golf course. A year earlier, in the summer of 2020, he noticed her name and results online. Puryear reached out and had her send him some swing videos, tournament results, and her upcoming competition schedule. Unbeknownst to Puryear, Kendall and her father had already read Puryear’s book, Diamonds in the Rough, before he got the job at Howard.
Still, she kept her options open during the college recruiting process. Howard initially wasn’t even on her list. “I did not really want to go north because less than 40 degrees is too cold,” she says. “I’m like, nope, I’m staying in the south: California, Texas, Florida, anything below that we’re good.”
But the more she heard about the program, the more Howard became a “buzzword,” Kendall says, not just for her, but for her family. It felt like everywhere they went, they met someone who went to Howard or had a connection to the school. She committed to Howard last November. “It went from ‘I don’t really want to go to here’ to ‘I don’t want to go to anywhere else but here,’” she says. Asked now what she looks forward to at Howard, she says, “Seeing some real snow … Coming from Houston, I have seen snow all of like four times in my life and even then it wasn’t really snow, it was just ice.”
For Puryear, it wasn’t just Kendall’s golf game that stood out. He found out she plays piano as well.
“I’ve been coaching a long, long time. And one thing I’ve noticed is, you find students that are really, really talented,” he says. “So not only is she a really good student, she’s a good golfer, but she’s also a good musician. And going back to my Stanford days, I noticed that some of our best players, some of our more academically astute players, had all those same touch points.”
Kendall has several goals with golf. She wants to win a tournament as an individual and with a team while at Howard. Afterward, she wants to play on the LPGA Tour. But one of her most important goals is to help grow and diversify golf. Stanford graduate Mariah Stackhouse is currently the only full-time active Black player on the LPGA Tour.
“In order for the game of golf to grow, you have to introduce more and more people who probably would not look at the sport as something they can play,” Kendall says.
That role continues at Howard, where she intends to use her platform to inspire others. Kendall wants to show other African American women and women of color that golf can be a sport for them, too. And as her dad likes to remind her, she is part of a historic group that will likely bring more attention to historically Black colleges and universities. She wants to be a role model and leader for anyone paying attention.
“Because you never know who’s watching,” she says.