A Rich History
The first documented round of golf played in Oklahoma was in 1900 at Guthrie Country Club, seven years before the former Indian Territory gained statehood. In the century-plus since, the Sooner State has developed a colorful golf history.
With plenty of great private and public courses for all skill levels open and developing around the state, Oklahoma has hosted numerous high-profile professional events like the 2022 PGA Championship and tournaments in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour and PGA Champions Tour.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, hordes of new players took up the game since it was a great way to get outdoors and get some exercise. Plus, golf is one sport which facilitates social distancing – helping fuel the sport’s popularity. In fact, most people who have taken up the game in the past few years are sticking with it.
“The wait at public courses around the state right now is exceedingly high. Private courses – their memberships are full, and they’ve got waiting lists,” says Ken McLeod, director of the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame. “The boom hasn’t shown any signs of letting up.”
Several Oklahoma-based colleges and universities are ranked among the best in the sport. As of June, the Oklahoma men were ranked No. 1 and Oklahoma State third in Golfstat’s collegiate rankings.
The Oklahoma City University women were atop the latest National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) rankings while the OCU men were in the top 10. Karsten Creek in Stillwater, the private course home to the OSU men’s and women’s teams, has hosted the NCAA Golf Championships in 2003, 2011 and 2018.
The game’s footprint in the state will be further expanded by two bills introduced in January 2022 by State Representative Sheila Dills of Tulsa, who played collegiately at OSU and is a four-time Women’s Oklahoma Golf Association State Amateur Champion.
The first, House Bill 3637, explores creating an Oklahoma Golf Trail to honor the state’s rich golfing history, like the Oklahoma Fish Trail, which has proved popular among anglers and contributes $45 million in economic impact to the state annually.
Dills’ other piece of legislation calls for the third Wednesday in June to be designated Oklahoma Golf Day. Expected to begin in 2023, this day would recognize the recreation opportunities the game provides, the jobs it adds to the economy and the positive impact of having green space for the Earth.
Passing on the Passion
Janice Gibson has been teaching golf in Tulsa and working at city-owned courses Mohawk Park and Page Belcher for the past 20 years. Before that, she played on the men’s team at Tulsa Hale High School, collegiately at OSU between 1979 and 1983, and spent over a decade on the LPGA Tour.
For 36 years, Gibson’s teacher was Jack Higgins, the former golf pro at Meadowbrook Country Club who taught thousands of area golfers.
“I was fortunate. [Higgins] was a legend in Oklahoma,” says Gibson. “He gave me my first opportunity to teach after I was out of college. He built a little golf course [Broken Arrow Golf School].
“He taught me how to teach. I love teaching, that’s my passion.”
Higgins never charged Gibson for lessons, a philosophy of helping grow the game and the countless life lessons it can deliver that she has carried forward as director of First Tee Tulsa, a youth development organization which helps kids build character. First Tee accomplishes this by integrating the game into a life skills curriculum designed to build game changers through junior golf programs.
“I have a player development class for kids that are in the First Tee who can’t afford a swing coach, kind of like what Jack [Higgins] did for me,” says Gibson. “I just think that’s important, that for golf pros it’s not about money. It’s about passing that passion on to kids that couldn’t afford golf on a private basis.”
At First Tee, Gibson and her fellow instructors are introducing 6,500 kids each year to the sport, free of charge. She’s also seen measurable growth in the number of women picking up clubs.
“The women are learning that hey, I don’t want to be left behind. This is fun,” she says. “They’re learning there’s camaraderie going on, business deals going on, and they don’t want to be the only ones not going.”
Along with time in the great outdoors and some exercise, there is another major benefit associated with playing golf which many don’t realize.
“I think the friendships [are the biggest thing]. It’s all about the friendships we form,” says Gibson. “All of my friends, pretty much, are golfers. The friendships you form [are] lifelong, and the game you play is lifelong.”