Rachel Melendez Mabee's cool job: PGA WORKS specialist

Courtesy of Rachel Melendez Mabee

"No one ever prepared me for how lonely it would be as a woman of color in golf because so many times, I was the 'only' or the 'first,'" Rachel Melendez Mabee said.

Rachel Melendez Mabee is familiar with a lot of the statistics about diversity -- or the lack thereof -- in the PGA. The PGA of America is 91 percent white and 96 percent male, according to the Dallas Morning News.

She's working to change that.

Mabee works as a PGA WORKS program specialist in a strategic initiative designed to diversify the golf industry's workforce. A charitable foundation of the PGA of America and funded by PGA REACH, PGA WORKS leverages fellowships, scholarships, career exploration events and the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship to engage talent from diverse backgrounds.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Mabee has played golf since she was 5, starting out at junior tournaments before she was 10 years old and frequenting TPC Dorado Beach. She was the only girl on her high school boys' golf team, and when her school added a girls' team, she was the only person of color on it. She played in college at Penn State and Georgia, then worked in Atlanta at The First Tee of East Lake.

The PGA WORKS program launched in 2017, and since she joined, she has helped it grow from three to 15 fellowships, providing more opportunities so people from diverse backgrounds can have careers in golf.

The PGA of America

Rachel Melendez Mabee speaks with former Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo, who joined PGA REACH as an intern.

"When I compare myself to a lot of golfers we're targeting in our program outreach, I was a little bit different, but our experiences were similar," Mabee said. "No one ever prepared me for how lonely it would be as a woman of color in golf because so many times, I was the 'only' or the 'first.' In that sense, I can empathize with a lot of the student-athletes I meet."

Mabee, who lives in western Massachusetts with her husband Eric Mabee, head PGA professional at the Country Club of Pittsfield, spoke with espnW about her role at PGA WORKS and her task of helping the golf industry reflect the United States' diversity.

Almost felt like it was my calling

I've had a golf club in my hands since age 5 and was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I am biracial. My mother is black and from Buffalo, New York, and my father is Puerto Rican. I was in a little bit of a bubble in Puerto Rico because I looked like everybody else. When I moved to Atlanta, my eyes were opened to the fact that I was a woman of color in an industry and in a game that's pretty homogenous.

I had aspirations of playing on tour, as many junior golfers do, but I knew I could make a bigger difference in the business side of golf. There were very few people like me I could look up to. I almost felt like it was my calling to be in the capacity that I'm in now. I started on the nonprofit side at The First Tee and moved to the PGA of America, working with our championship. My boss became the senior director of PGA REACH and he told me about this position. It couldn't have been a better fit, with me wanting to help bring more people from different backgrounds into this game that I love so much.

From the tee to the biz

I played in a few professional tournaments in Florida, but I really couldn't hack it. When I got a chance to be on the Golf Channel's "Big Break X: Michigan" show, I felt that truly was my last big break for a shot to enter the golf industry. I made it through four episodes of the show. I played well, had a few sponsors, but I knew I needed to get a big-girl job. I was working at The First Tee, so I just kept going in the business side of golf.

So many young men and women have told me they were happy to see someone who looks like them in the golf industry.
Rachel Melendez Mabee

Embracing diversity at PGA WORKS

I was hired to lead the overall initiative of PGA WORKS, but initially, it was to work with the PGA WORKS fellowships. I mostly nurture the scholarships, but I also have my hands in all of our programmatic elements. PGA WORKS is a brand-new initiative and it is part of the PGA of America's true commitment toward workforce diversification and inclusion initiatives. We want our workforce to look like modern-day America.

One of our inaugural fellows told me, "I'm a black female. I don't exist in golf." That was exactly the same sentiment I had many years ago. I knew we had come far, but not far enough, as she could still make that statement. It was a true driver for me to help make this program impactful and to make her fellowship experience impactful enough for her to want to stay. It's part of my job to help with job placement within the golf industry. I feel blessed to be in this position to create an impact with the work that I'm doing.

Looking like the communities we serve

When discussing diversity, we tend to think about the biggest visual disparities, which is usually gender and racial disparities. But there are so many dimensions of diversity and that includes age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability and even veteran status. We are intentional when we target other dimensions of diversity.

Our goal is for the fellowships to be available in all 41 of our PGA sections. We want the scholarship program to engage diverse candidates to enter professional golf management programs at universities. For me personally, the goal is to help change the narrative of what the golf industry looks like. As we continue to have fellows involved and wanting to be in that industry, we're filling that workforce pipeline with diverse candidates.

The value of inclusion

We also have a hand in their professional development. We want them to have a seat at that proverbial table. We do a great job now with the diversity component, but now we're working with the inclusion component. A mentor once told me that diversity is inviting people to the party, but inclusion is asking them to dance. We're asking these individuals to dance and to partake in this industry. We're glad that they are getting in at the entry level, but now we want to help them become key decision-makers within the industry.

As an industry, we will not be relevant or exist if we don't change with the times. What used to be is no longer. Those of us in the industry, especially golfers, all love the game and want it to be sustainable. We want it to be relevant for years and for generations to come, but if we don't look like the communities we serve, we're never going to attract more people into this game or into the business side of it. If we don't make these intentional efforts to have representation and access, the relevance is not going to be there.

Building awareness

The association is very committed to this program, but the biggest challenge is awareness. This is not something I can just post on a website or on a job board. I have to be very intentional and grassroots about it. I have to reach out personally to universities regarding recruiting events and minority expos and I have to educate them about these opportunities. If I'm there talking about it with people, I can actually see the light bulbs go off.

About more than playing or teaching golf

The PGA WORKS Fellowship is an entry-level position. That's where we show diverse candidates what the industry can offer. There's a myth in the golf industry that you either play golf or teach it. There are a myriad of functions, roles and responsibilities in the 41 section offices, offering experiences in operations, marketing, communications and some business administration. There's much more than just playing or teaching the game.

PGA Beyond the Green is more of a career exploration event. We have keynote speakers, moderators and panels of non-golfers and golfers that touch on their experiences within careers in the industry to a base of student-athletes mostly from diverse backgrounds. Students get to come to this event located at one of our PGA of America hospitality venues onsite at the PGA Championship. Not only do these students get to participate during the day with the speakers and panels, but they also get an inside-the-ropes tour of this event. It offers an all-access view of careers in the industry and the PGA Championship.

Hoping for a ripple effect

Some things are going to be pie-in-the-sky dreams, but we have to focus on the micro-moments of inclusion. When we have a fellow who is now working full-time in the golf industry, that's a step forward we will continue to build on. We have big goals, but we like to focus on the smaller moments and the ripple effect. That whole notion of "if you can see it, you can be it" is just not going to be a true statement if we don't reflect the communities we serve or have diverse representation.

So many young men and women have told me they were happy to see someone who looks like them in the golf industry. I've learned that just me being there has made an impact on some of these young people. Because I'm tasked to lead this national program, PGA WORKS is what I think about every single day. I want to bring to the table awareness, opportunity and access, but I want our fellows to have an incredible experience and to tell their friends about it.

Lisa D. Mickey has covered golf for Golf World, Golf For Women, The New York Times, the U.S. Golf Association, LPGA.com, Virginia Golfer Magazine and for various other publications and websites. She is based in Florida.

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