Courtesy Wilberforce University
In July 2020, in southwestern Ohio, a recent high school graduate named Patrick Rucondo received a phone call with an unexpected offer. It came from a golf instructor at a local college. The coach was hanging out with a scholarship, a golden bargain, to join the team that fall.
As an outstanding student from a humble background, Patrick wasted little time in admission. All papers have been signed. Everything is set, except for one.
It was now on Patrick to learn the game.
I knew the word ‘golf’ and heard about it tiger wood‘, he says. ‘But I’ve never seen a golf course, and I’ve never seen any golf before. I had to look at the videos to see how it was done.”
Golf takes those who play it on improbable journeys. But there are few paths more unlikely than Patrick’s to choosing a club. He is the seventh of nine children, born and raised in a refugee camp in Rwanda, in East Africa, where his parents settled after fleeing civil war in their native Congo. Patrick’s childhood home was a low-rise hut, with no electricity or running water.
“We didn’t have much, but we were happy,” he says.
In 2016, when he was 16, his family obtained asylum and moved to Baltimore. Patrick knew three languages, but not English. To facilitate the transition, he dropped out of school for a year in high school, and enrolled with his younger brother as a freshman.
The other way he adapted was through sports.
A natural athlete, Patrick grew up playing soccer. He quickly became a strong advocate at the start of his school 11. He would make friends and fit in. Despite this, his family could barely manage, as his father worked in a waste management and his mother worked in a meatpacking factory. In 2018, in pursuit of lower costs and safer streets, they moved again, this time to Ohio.
At Dunbar High School, in Dayton, Patrick remained productive in class and beyond. In Baltimore, he tried his hand at volleyball and tennis. Now try his feet in soccer, kick field goals and extra points.
“I was too afraid to be a gambler,” he says.
He also took the track. But football, as he saw it, was his best ticket to college education, if only the Dunbar football team had attracted more attention.
“We weren’t very good at it, so no one really noticed,” Patrick says.
Upon graduation, Patrick received direct transcript and scholarship offers from several colleges in Ohio and Indiana. But it was not perfect and not all schools were close to home. Both factors were deal breakers.
“I was taking my time, trying to make a good choice,” says Patrick.
That’s when his phone rang. William Ware, Wilberforce University’s new golf coach, has been on the road, the nation’s oldest private university, historically for blacks.
The Wilberforce golf program had a story of its own. Founded in the 1950s, it was strong in its day. But over the decades, I faltered, and then collapsed. In 2015, the school brought him back, but the revived team was nothing but a team in the looser sense, with a filling coach and a roster full of student-athletes from other sports. In 2018, the program was suspended by its own conference due to a lack of players – a low point that doubled as a wake-up call.
Patrick’s phone rang. It was William Weir, the new golf coach at Wilberforce University.
“We realized we were missing out on a huge opportunity with golf,” says Derek Williams, who got on board the same year as the school’s athletic director. “We had senior alumni who loved the game, and it was something that could give a lot of young people a path to college. It was time to get into it all.”
The recruiting assignment fell to Ware, a former track star in Dunbar (and later, the University of Cincinnati) who didn’t play golf until he was in his mid-twenties, when he was introduced to her during his banking career. Ware was about forty years old, and although he was good enough to give side classes at a local public course, he had no experience with the task at hand: starting a college team from scratch.
The big restart began in the summer of 2020. With only months left before the season, Weir worked on his connections, trying to collect the names. Among the calls he made to his former Dunbar coach, Sidney Booker, who was still in that position at the school. Booker mentioned Patrick as a primary candidate, a hardworking kid with an excellent hand eye and a better head.
“So, coach William called me and told me he could give me a scholarship,” says Patrick. “And I thought, Well, maybe golf is now my sport.”
Wilberforce University takes its name from 18th-century abolitionist William Wilberforce, whose notable quotes include this line: “We’re too young to realize that some things are impossible…so we’ll do them, anyway.”
This could have been the motto of the fledgling program. The Ware team had no uniforms, training pitches, or home course. But at least it had a minimal amount of customizations for players, four in all. It was partly thanks to Patrick, who helped Weir gather more recruits.
The other three who signed the agreement were Yves Yoshimi (Patrick’s younger brother); Emmanuel Nshimimana (who grew up with Patrick in the refugee camp) and Ngabo Robebe, who was also from East Africa. He and Patrick had met a few months ago.
When they first met as a group on campus, no member of the team ever took a shot that counted toward the score.
This team was not fit to compete. And their coach wasn’t in the mood to rush out. Covid was raging. Travel is restricted. For the first six months, the only trips the players took were a nearby training center, Bairs Den, whose owner, Brian Bairs, provided the team with reduced-range balls.
The learning curve was crunching. At first, Patrick admitted that he didn’t find it interesting.
“I had a football situation with my hands separated at the club, and I kept losing the ball because I was trying to kill it,” he says. “One day I thought I’d figured something out, but the next day I was hitting it two inches again.”
The game imposed its penalties, but Patrick persevered, and made progress — and not just on the track.
By spring, though, his basics had improved. Such were his options. Ware arranged for the team’s access to two local courses: Beavercreek Golf Club and Miami Valley Golf Club, the latter a private design by Donald Ross that hosted the 1957 PGA Championship.
Exit from the real Patrick’s perspective presented.
“It’s more beautiful and interesting to shoot on the court,” he says. “You can see the challenge and the work you need to do. It gave me a different view of golf.”
Another full year passed before Wilberforce competed in its first official championship, meeting teams from historically black colleges. It was in the spring of 2022, at Summer Grove Golf Club, in Georgia. Patrick played one round and shot 126, and his opening lead was higher which helped set the tone.
“Those first holes were incredible because I was playing a zigzag game, left to right to left, taking three or more ball throws,” he says. “Everything was not working. Maybe it was pressure. But I also know my swing was bad.”
More tournaments followed, and you can probably guess: The game ran its course, but Patrick persevered, making progress – and not just on the track. It builds confidence and broadens horizons. He and his colleagues attended the memorial, in Muirfield VillageTo see the best players in the world. Michael Jordan invited them to visit His own club in Floridaand the Wilberforce crew took him on the show.
“Fantastic trip,” says Patrick, although he missed the opportunity to meet Airness himself.
In Patrick’s final round of the spring season, he earned 18 for 99, the first player on the team to break a 100. Then summer came, and with it another chance. Patrick received an offer from the United States Golf Association.
One of golf’s biggest problems was that it didn’t look much like the world around it. There is still a long way to go. But there is a growing effort to make things right. In the fall of 2020, shortly after Wilberforce revived its program, the PGA Tour awarded the school $100,000. Equipment makers introduced the clubs. Training periods began to take shape.
In 2021, Patrick and his colleagues landed paid jobs with the Miami Valley Golf Association, where they tackled a range of data-driven desk jobs. Patrick stood out so much that the USGA upped the ante, awarding him coaching PJ Boatwright Jr. for Summer 2022. Since his birth in 1991, the Boatwright Program has invested more than $32 million to help prepare young people for careers in golf. In 2022 alone, $1.7 million went to more than 125 internships at governing body allied golf federations across the country.
In his role at Boatwright, Patrick has moved beyond the office to more interactive aspects of the industry. He’s assisted with handicaps and tournament setups, assisted with marketing and communications, and participated in junior programs.
“Patrick is an example of the power of positive thinking and getting ahead,” says Steve Juric, CEO of the Miami Valley Golf Association. “He will do whatever is asked of him. He takes on everything 100 percent. He is a role model and essential to the story of what our game should look like in the coming years.”
Life in golf doesn’t seem half bad for Patrick, but he hasn’t settled on a career. He’s a college student now, with all his costs covered (when the school saw his grades, it offered Patrick a full academic trip, so the golf scholarship could go to someone else), majoring in electrical engineering, a field he considers interesting to be the end of his upbringing.
“When you grow up in a place where there’s no electricity, it’s a good idea to think about helping bring energy to some people,” he says. “That way, maybe I can give back to the world.”
In the meantime, he’s still working on his game, in a program that continues to improve. In the first championship of the season this fall, Patrick shot 86 goals, but his teammate, who signed 79, has since made their poor start in 2020, Wilberforce’s roster has swelled to seven players, two of whom took on a high school game.
Experience is important. Not much happens in golf overnight. Building a college program is a test 22: It takes resources to attract talent, and vice versa. As a coach, William Weir has embraced the long view.
“At first, it was hard to convince anyone to come to Wilberforce,” he says. “I didn’t have a golfer. I had no elbow. I didn’t have much to offer.” Since then, enough momentum behind it has swelled that the school now has a budding women’s golf program as well.
“My vision is to be competitive enough that the best golfers in Ohio want to play with us,” Ware says.
Last week, the Wilberforce men’s team wrapped up their 2022 campaign, at the Mid-South Conference Fall Classic, in Kentucky. On the scorecard, this wasn’t Patrick’s best showing. Shot in the low 90s. But numbers are not a measure of what really matters.
“Maybe because I grew up, but when I play golf I try to do my best but that’s not all I think about,” says Patrick. “I know I’m going to hit some bad shots, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, that doesn’t tell people about you.”