- Golfer Benefits
From the moment Wareham native Curtis Merritt (The Kittansett Club) arrived on the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C., he realized he was experiencing something much grander than his long-sought-after dream of being a Division I golfer.
Camera crews from ESPN were there as part of a docuseries chronicling the newly revived men’s and women’s golf programs at Howard. The series — Why Not Us: Howard Golf — is currently streaming on ESPN+ and follows Merritt and his teammates as well as the women’s squad, and the program’s charismatic director of golf Sam G. Puryear Jr. throughout the 2022-23 season.
The program garnered national attention when NBA star Steph Curry, a scratch golfer himself, committed $6 million to fund the program, which had been dormant for nearly a half-century. When Curry visited the campus in 2019, a young student Otis Ferguson IV, caught Curry’s attention following a panel discussion by stating his dream of launching a golf team at the college. He received Curry’s contact information, and the future Hall of Famer delivered and more.
Howard has long been recognized as the Harvard of historically black colleges & universities (HBCUs), and Merritt has helped raise the profile of this blossoming program, which has brought in talented minority golfers from across the country. But scoring well on the golf course is only part of the program’s larger purpose.
“Our primary goal is achieving excellence,” Merritt said. “I recognize the significance of wearing Howard University colors, and we try to do everything with pride and honor. We want to inspire the next generation of black golfers to pursue their passion for the sport.
“Diversity in the sport of golf is a big thing for us. Everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in the game no matter your background or ethnicity, everybody should have an opportunity. So we try to give back to our black community through First Tee or other historically underserved youth programs.”
In the show, Merritt mentions that growing up in a largely white community, HBCUs were hardly on his mind. He grew up playing team sports, with a particular affinity for basketball. But at age 13, he first started swinging golf clubs in his backyard after discovering an old set from his grandfather in the basement.
Always a competitor with a hype man personality, he was able to channel that energy into golf and made the varsity team during his 8th-grade year at Wareham. After two years, he transferred to Sturgis West, a public charter school on the Cape, and in 2017, led the team to an undefeated regular season and finished third overall in the Division 3 state tournament. A year later, he qualified for his first Mass Open by shooting a 3-over 74 at the Eastward Ho! qualifier. In the meantime, he spent summers as a caddie at The Kittansett Club,
From there, Merritt set a goal of playing Division I golf. His ascension, however, hit a bit of a wall. He initially played for Division III UMass Dartmouth, which dropped its golf program in 2020. He decided to go west and try to walk on at the University of Oregon. Soon after arriving, COVID-19 struck and sent Merritt back home. While he would never suit up for the Ducks, he said the program played a major role in getting him a Division I opportunity. Puryear was hired by Howard on April 9 and had Pac-12 connections having been an assistant coach on Stanford University’s 2007 squad, which earned a national title that year. Puryear has scheduled his team to play in Stanford’s Goodwin Intercollegiate, going up against some of the nation’s best teams.
“I never really got recruited to Howard, but [Oregon] coach Casey Martin recorded my swing during practice and got me in touch with Coach P. [Puryear],” Merritt said. “I just tried to stay connected with them and kept showing my face. I went on my own to Howard and got myself a visit. So there wasn’t much contact between us. It was just me just kind of just pursuing and trying to get to that level.”
By the time Merritt reached campus for the 2023 spring semester, it had been nearly four years since he suited up for a college team. In addition to adapting to a new city and new teammates, he entered with limited tournament golf experience. And with leaders such as Gregory Odom Jr. and Everett Whiten Jr., both of whom earned a Korn Ferry Tour exemption this summer, there was no guarantee he’d be in the top group of players for a program dead-set on winning its first-ever Northeast Conference title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“It was it was tough, but my motto was always stay ready,” Merritt recalled. “I grinded my butt off before I got to Howard just trying to get to that level. I wasn’t playing my greatest golf midway through the season and kind of struggled a little bit trying to keep up with school. Most of my successes came later in the season after I got more reps.”
Falling back on his hype man instincts, Merritt was always motivating his teammates, and his leadership caught the attention of his coach. He earned a T7 finish in the Carpetbagger Classic, the second-highest score on the squad, and held his top-five spot in the spring season.
“His game is good,” Everett Whiten Jr. said of Merritt, his teammate, in the ESPN series. “He can compete with all of us, and I think he’ll be a key factor at NECs.”
The start of the NECs at LPGA National in Daytona Beach didn’t go so great for Merritt as he shot consecutive 79s to open the three-round tournament. Despite that, the team was just five strokes off the lead entering the final round. The following day, Merritt had a pre-round conversation with his coach about having faith, one of the show’s uplifting moments that was like something out of a sports movie.
“If you commit to what you’re doing, the fear leaves and everything takes care of itself,” Puryear said to Merritt. “There’s only two things that can happen today, Curtis. You can hit a good shot or a crappy shot. Regardless of the outcome of that shot, you can hit another one. So we’re going to seek to have more good ones than bad ones.”
Inspired by the pep talk, Merritt shot 1-under 71 for the first bogey-free round of his life. “That’s going right on my wall guaranteed,” he said holding the score strip from his card.
Howard finished runner-up in the NECs, short of an NCAA appearance, but the season wasn’t over yet. For the second straight year, the squad dominated at the PGA Works Collegiate Championships (PWCC) featuring 10 HBCU golf programs. Merritt set another personal record with a career-low 5-under 66 in the middle round to move into the top five, eventually finishing seventh overall to lead the Bison to commanding victory.
A new season is about to commence for Merritt and the Bison. Merritt received a sponsorship to play in the Jim Thorpe Invitational, a premier, 36-hole tournament for elite minority juniors, collegiate golfers, and tour professionals, taking place February 16-18 at ChampionsGate in Orlando, Florida.
The team is determined as ever to finally make it to nationals, however, Merritt’s role is currently in flux. Because his collegiate tenure began in 2018, his so-called five-year clock of eligibility for NCAA events expired last year. Because he wasn’t on an active roster in 2020, he hasn’t been granted a “COVID year.” Merritt says he might appeal the decision, but regardless of outcome, he’s still enrolled at Howard and will serve as an assistant coach, if he is not granted additional playing eligibility.
“It’s unfortunate, but I’m still part of the team,” Merritt said. “I’ll be able to travel with the guys, go to the tournaments and help them out when I can.”
While he’s considering giving professional golf an attempt at some point, Merritt is currently pursuing a degree in television & radio, and being around the ESPN crew last year helped him envision working in that role.
“I like working with the camera as well as capturing moments,” Merritt said. “Having ESPN around certainly helped that a little bit. I got to look on the inside of what television actually is. I got close with the producer, so it’s been pretty cool having them around. They’ve been a big help and kind of just like visiting where I want to be.”
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