It's a private club of sorts, invitation only — A dozen Black men, golf clubs, and typically 36 holes. They show up each year to play golf, not just for the sport of it but for the brotherhood.
"If you want to go play competitively, you need to find a different group. When we get together, it's all about having fun, playing golf and fellowship," said Craig Kelley, Sr., co-founder and one of the organizers of the annual Cornbread Cup golf tournament. "It's not about the competition. It's all about the brotherhood. The fellowship is a big part of it."
At least once a year, the men, some having friendships dating back 30 years or more, meet up at a chosen golf course for friendly competition and fellowship.
"We used to play basketball, but the older we got, we decided to start meeting up to play golf," Kelley Sr. said. "Our spouses, our families, our kids have grown up seeing us do this over the years. Everybody wants to be a part of it. Everybody's really motivated. After we play, we do some other things with the group. Several events are hosted at people's houses. Everybody knows everybody. It's a big family affair when we get together."
It started with two
Seventeen years ago, Kelley Sr. and a friend started competing one-on-one. The team of two grew and eventually began to average 12 to 15 men in the private club.
"There were two of us that played and had a one-on-one tournament for several years, maybe about five years," Kelley Sr., 62, said. "The other friends that were close to them wanted to join. They wanted part of the competition. So, we developed a tournament that all of our associates and close friends could play in."
Members are scattered throughout the United States, including Michigan, Illinois, Georgia, Washington D.C., and Mississippi. They volunteer to host events in their hometowns each year. This year's host city is Memphis, Tenn.
"It's usually, we know coming up we will probably go here or there. A person has really kind of planted a seed that they want to host," Kelley Sr. said. "We just give different participants an opportunity to present, and we vote on who's going to host."
Recruitment is word of mouth, and potential candidates have to have a "deep" relationship with at least one current member who has the opportunity to introduce men that they think are the right fit. Members then vote on whether to let the candidate into the close-knit club.
"It's not often that we bring somebody in that becomes a regular," Kelley Sr. said. "To be part of the group, there has to be a commitment. Once they join, people haven't left the group. They enjoy the get-together. So, we've kind of just added a few people on over the years. We've got some newer folks that we've brought in that have deep relationships with people in the club that brought them in."
Purnell Gates, 48, the youngest and newest member, said it's about being able to get away and bonding. He joined the club five years ago after two of his cousins recruited him.
"Initially, I was like golf? I just ended up going and just really enjoyed it and got hooked. Everybody just took me in. For me, it's about brotherhood, to be totally honest," said Gates, who club members nicknamed Pants. "As the youngest, it's crazy because I wasn't a really good golfer. I got all the gear and these crazy golf pants and all. I thought, 'I can't play golf, but my outfit is going to be on point.'"
Members range from ages 70 to 48.
In addition to trophies for the tournament, members select one person to win their Brothers Keeper award, which goes to the person who had the best attitude not just on the golf course but also throughout the week at various events and gatherings. The award is in honor of a member who died two years ago.
"It's not just about the competition. It's more than that," Kelley Sr. said. "We're competitive on the golf course. Everybody wants to win, but we also want everybody to win in life. It's not just on the golf course. It's off the golf course too. How are you conducting yourself on and off the golf course?"