A look around Craig Bowen’s tiny office on the third floor of Benedict’s Charlie A. Johnson Stadium suggests a typical college golf coach’s dwelling. A closer look suggests something more.
Dominating one wall, next to a black-and-white photo of a young Bowen playing golf, is an enlarged color shot of Tiger Woods and a cigar-chomping Michael Jordan, shot during their pro-am round at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte several years ago. Not a surprising office adornment for a coach at a historically black college.
Except for this: the photo includes Woods’ and Jordan’s signatures. There’s also a newspaper clipping on the wall with a photo of Woods and Bowen together, smiling, obviously familiar.
No, Craig Bowen is not your typical college golf coach, let alone one in his second season. His resume includes stints as promotions manager for golf giants Titleist and Footjoy, as an instructor at the PGA Tour Academy in Ponte Vedra, Fla., and duty as executive director of the National Minority College Golf Scholarship Fund. He began running minority golf tournaments and a Chicago First Tee chapter.
Bowen, who turns 47 this month, spent three years traveling with Woods as Titleist’s contact with the world’s No. 1 player. And he was a driving force behind the 2009 Golf Channel documentary, “Uneven Fairways,” which chronicled the history of African-American golfers, and was the researcher for author Pete McDaniel’s 2000 book, “Uneven Lies,” the basis of the TV special.
So what’s he doing at a Division II golf program with a sketchy history? “What my DNA groomed me to do,” Bowen said with a grin.
The son of Chicago educators — his father, Charles, was Illinois’ first black school superintendent; mother Gwen spent 30 years as a guidance counselor — he sees coaching as a logical next step. So he was amenable when Charlie A. Johnson, Benedict’s chairman of the board and a family friend, told him in early 2011: “I’ve got a place for you to start a program. We want you to take us to the next level.”
“I bring a wealth of knowledge, patience, all that; I just need to learn administration,” Bowen said. “I’ve got proven teaching experience.” Mostly, though, he says, “This is what I was groomed to do. There’s a flock of kids in the game that I’ve helped at First Tee, and I want to bring some of them here to Benedict.”
Even so, his introduction to his team last October was, well, different. Bowen arrived at the National Minority Hall of Fame tournament in Atlanta, replacing previous coach Daniel Gillis, and immediately told his team members they were playing too slow.
“My first official day,” Bowen said, laughing, “and they looked at me like, ‘Who the (heck) is this guy?’ ”
They quickly found out. At season’s end, Bowen led his thin team — “three guys and a girl, Kelly Willis” — to a second-place finish at the SIAC Tournament in Augusta, and fifth in an NCAA regional. This year, with revamped men’s and women’s teams, he hopes to do more.
“We’ve got a great recruiting class,” he said. Men’s holdovers Jordan Buchanan and Eddie Smith are joined by freshmen Chris Woo, from Columbia, Md., and Dacula, Ga.’s Raluston Jones. Bowen plumbed his longtime contacts via First Tee to find prospects, and maintains ties with most of his players’ instructors.
This year’s women’s team includes freshmen Freddie Banks, Jalissa Harris, Hailey Little and Betsey Dorvoilus, a 25-year-old just beginning her college career. Bowen is especially keen on Banks, a former all-area basketball player from Atlanta who carries a 12 handicap, and Willis, a sophomore who “hits an 8-iron as far as I do.”
Dorvoilus, a product of the Orlando (Fla.) Minority Youth Golf Association, has the sort of atypical golf history Bowen finds. She followed her brother to the driving range as a preteen, but quit after high school and took a job with Frito-Lay. At 23 she tried again and discovered “I still hit it well,” and would leave work at 3 p.m. to hit balls until 10 p.m.
“I haven’t competed in a real setting, so I need to stay focused,” she said. “To be honest, I have no feeling for school. I just wanted to play golf.”
His players figured out that, similar to their histories, Bowen is not a typical coach. “He’s a coach, but he has a friend’s perspective,” Buchanan, a junior from near Portland, Ore. “He told us, ‘I’ve never done this before,’ but after a trial-and-error (last) year, he’s confident.”
Bowen also found willing pupils for his teaching. Buchanan says Bowen’s work with his short game helped cut his handicap by 3-4 strokes. Atlanta native Smith went from hitting “boomerangs” (slices and hooks) to all-conference last season.
“He changed my whole swing,” Smith said. “Now I hit draws.” Primarily a baseball player in high school, the 6-foot-3 Atlanta native says of Bowen: “He talks to you, relates to you. I never had that type coach before.”
He also never had one with a landmark book and documentary to his credit. Each player has a copy of “Uneven Lies” now, and most have read at least some of it. “I’m almost done,” Smith said.
The book and documentary were labors of love. Bowen had read about black golf pioneers Bill Spiller, Teddy Rhodes and Charlie Sifford, the first African-American playing member of the PGA Tour. He and McDaniel, who wrote Woods’ instructional articles for Golf Digest, met while part of Woods’ entourage and “formed an instant bond,” McDaniel said.
“In 1997 or 1998, Craig contacted me about doing a documentary on African-Americans in golf,” McDaniel said. Titleist CEO Wally Uehlein told Bowen a book was needed first, and signed McDaniel as the author.
“Craig was the researcher, and we grew closer throughout the project,” McDaniel said. “I consider him my little brother. I’ve seen his career go through a lot of changes, and he’s worn a lot of hats.”
McDaniel wasn’t sure a coach’s cap would be one of them, though. “I kind of was (surprised),” he said. “He knew all the coaches, players; he was the ‘in’ guy, but I never thought he had the patience to coach.
“I guess he gained some teaching and raising two children. When he told me he was accepting the Benedict job, I thought, ‘OK, that’s good.’ I admit some trepidation, but he seems to have settled in.”
In fact, Bowen admits there are times when all the parts of the job — teaching, scheduling, paperwork and the inevitable college politics — are a bit overwhelming. “But I truly enjoy what I do,” he said. “No; I love what I do.”
Bowen believes he has what it takes to succeed. When in doubt, a look at his office wall can be reassuring.