J.R. Smith followed his own path to golf, from high school basketball star to 16-year NBA veteran and now older-than-usual college athlete at North Carolina A&T.
He wants his story to help others feel comfortable taking up the sport.
“There’s definitely a place in the game for everybody,” Smith said. “No matter what color, age you are, gender — there’s a place in this game for any and everybody.”
That’s Smith’s message with Wednesday’s launch of a video podcast aiming to make the sport more accessible to young and diverse audiences. The weekly Par 3 Podcast features Smith, famed high-end jeweler Ben Baller, and Malbon Golf lifestyle and apparel company co-founder Stephen Malbon.
Smith started playing while in the NBA. Malbon played as a teenager, then returned as an adult. Baller is the late bloomer who has gone all-in on golf over the past year.
Shows will cover topics from gear, fashion, brands and trends to the hosts’ personal ups and downs on the scorecard. It’s designed to be three golfers chatting candidly about the game they love, and doing so in a manner to make the sport feel broadly welcoming rather than limited to a select group based on race, wealth or social status.
That’s important in a sport with a problematic past on racial issues, such as the PGA of America banning Black professional players until rescinding its Caucasian-only clause in 1961.
“When you think about the older version of the game compared to this newer, modern version where so many different kids from different backgrounds and communities are actually playing the game, it’s not just that stuffy old white sport anymore,” Smith told The Associated Press. “We’re breaking down those barriers and we want to continuously break down those barriers, because that’s an old way to live, think. And it wasn’t right.
“For us to be able to have platforms like this with Stephen, Ben and myself, I feel like it continuously breaks down those barriers. And shows people that you can be — whether it be a skateboarder or jeweler or designer or basketball player — you can be any type of walk of life … and you can still have the same love and joy and passion for a sport like golf.”
Malbon talked about playing golf with his 10-year-old son in referencing his interest in appealing to young players and keeping them involved long-term.
As he put it: “You can like Wu Tang (Clan) and be really good at golf, and that’s totally OK.”
It helped when Smith, a two-time NBA world champion, chose to attend and play golf at a Historically Black College or University, which followed a 2021 push by the league and its players to support HBCU traditions and culture.
“He made it cool,” said Baller, who is pivoting from his jewelry businesses to play full-time. “Because J.R.’s a cool dude. You see J.R. and he had this (NBA) bad-boy persona. But then you meet J.R. in person … and I’m like, ‘OK, he really respects the game in its pure form.’”
Smith’s transition to 37-year-old college golfer raised attention on the sport much like work by current NBA star Stephen Curry, who helped Howard launch its golf program and has worked to improve youth access through his UNDERRATED Golf project.
“It broadcasts the message of: you can be who you are, you don’t have to apologize for who you are,” Malbon said. “You just can go at it and get better every day. And I think (Smith’s) showing that, which is great.”