Wearing a Seminole head, Oakmont squirrel, Merion wicker basket, Winged Foot’s flying foot or any number of cherished emblems comes with the pride of exclusion. If you are fortunate enough to be a member at a recognizable club, or even lucky enough just to play there once, you want people to know. It’s human nature, and it’s definitely a golfer’s nature.
For Eastside Golf, a Black-owned streetwear brand that came online in 2019, their venture into the golf apparel world is defined by a provocative logo. The symbol – an African-American swinging a golf club in jeans, a sweater and fresh kicks while a gold chain around his neck swings freely – says everything about the type of open-minded, true-to-yourself environment the company wants to promote in a sport known for restriction.
The golf and urban culture Venn diagram mostly has been treated as two separate circles in the apparel world, but Eastside is showing there is actually a sizable population in the center overlap. When NBA star Chris Paul, a growing golf enthusiast, wore the brand’s clothing during the NBA playoffs in 2020 as emotional discussions were taking place around social justice reform, Eastside reached an audience most golf brands have ignored. Other stars joined. Super Bowl champion Justin Tuck, actor Anthony Anderson, rapper Wale and 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell are among those who have donned the attire as a show of swag, belonging and a respectful stiff-arm to golf’s self-important attitude.
There are two men driving this forward. The first is founder Olajuwon Ajanaku, a 32-year-old who grew up on Atlanta’s east side (hence the company name) and played college golf at local Morehouse College, where he led the team to a PGA Minority Collegiate Championship. The son of a single mother, the 6-foot-3 Ajanaku said he spent his childhood playing golf for money against drug dealers. Golf started as an escape and has evolved into something he still hopes to do professionally at a high level.
The second member of Eastside is his former college teammate Earl Cooper, coincidentally born four days apart from Ajanaku, who joined in early 2020 and now serves as the Eastside brand ambassador. Cooper’s presence is deeply meaningful because he is a PGA professional with strong connections to the traditional golf world. He’s been featured on the Golf Digest “Best Young Teacher” list and became the first Black golf pro at Detroit Golf Club (2012) and Wilmington (Delaware) Country Club (2015).
“The thing that I tell people all the time is that we respect the game,” Cooper told GGP Biz. “A lot of times you have individuals, and no knock on them, but you have someone like Macklemore who has had a great career in music and is considered cool and hip and he says, ‘Hey, I want to go play golf now.’ And he creates a new golf (apparel) line, and that’s great. But we’re really golfers.”
Cooper brings legitimacy to Eastside beyond his playing or teaching prowess, and it all comes back to his background.
The Delaware native was 6 years old when his father saw a flyer for the LPGA Urban Youth Golf Program, a nonprofit that was started when DuPont Country Club hosted the McDonald’s LPGA Championship. No one in his family played. None of his friends played, and some of them wondered aloud what he was doing going off on his own to play golf. However, the natural ability was evident. By the time Cooper finished second in nationals at the Golf Channel Drive, Chip and Putt competition as a 13-year-old, he was hooked.
After his time at Morehouse with Ajanaku, Cooper went through the now-defunct PGA of America Post Graduate Program on his own ambition and became a rising star in golf instruction. He started as an intern at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida, before becoming the first Black assistant pro at Detroit Golf Club and Wilmington Country Club, a facility where he once caddied as a teenager. He even gave a lesson to then-Vice President Joe Biden.
It became clear to him, however, that his influence could expand beyond green-grass facilities and beyond golf. Among his many ventures, Cooper has penned a series of children’s books for elementary school students about HBCU mascots, and back in 2016, he took a position in the Wilmington mayor’s office focusing on public-private partnerships. He has helped organize the city’s HBCU week to educate students about opportunities the institutions offer.
Teaching at Wilmington had its drawbacks – especially when he couldn’t bring non-members to the course – leading to the creation of Earl Cooper Golf, his own teaching academy at Union League Golf Club at Torresdale in Pennsylvania. While that continued to grow, Cooper had a request from Ajanaku, who had decided to give pro golf a try after a stint in the finance world.
“He said, ‘Man, this is my life, I want to play professional golf,’ and the first thing he decided was that he needed a logo,” Cooper said. “So he hit me up because I had written some children’s books and knew some artists. They got together to create the logo, and they showed it to me and I’m like, ‘Man, that is dope.’”
Ajanaku had only planned on putting the logo, which is meant to be a representation of himself, on his golf bag and his shirt. But after placing the logo on a shirt and walking around downtown Detroit in June 2019, it became apparent the symbol had more power than anyone anticipated.
“He was stopped like 50, 60 times,” Cooper said. “They were asking, ‘Who are you? What is that logo? How do I get one?’”
With momentum building, Ajanaku launched the brand in the fall of 2019 and convinced Cooper to come with him to that January’s PGA Show. Cooper warned his friend about adverse reactions walking around a sea of mainly tradition-oriented white men, but they were both surprised by the passionate and overwhelmingly positive response.
Did it make some feel uncomfortable? It did, but that was the point.
“I wasn’t sure the golf industry was ready to accept that logo, but the majority of people do like it,” Cooper said. “I think the beauty of it is, it forces a reaction out of people. It makes you come up with some sort of opinion.”
“There’s so many new people coming into the game. And they are not just old, white, male. … We’ve got new people coming, so how do we ensure that when they arrive to the game, people that look like them understand their needs and understand their concerns?” – Earl Cooper
And it was that courage at the 2020 PGA Show that convinced Cooper to become a business partner with Ajanaku. It ended up being perfect timing. That summer is when C.J. Paul, Chris Paul’s brother, reached out to Eastside via Instagram to inquire about getting some gear for his brother to wear. Paul’s role in the National Basketball Players Association meant the world had its eyes turned to him in the aftermath of George Floyd, Jacob Blake and others being killed.
“That moment changed everything,” Cooper said. “Sales went through the roof, our popularity and notoriety went up. It was because of the magnitude of that event. It wasn’t just a sports story. It was a national news story.”
They couldn’t make product fast enough, which was a challenge during the pandemic. It was a good problem to have. They went from backpacking around the 2020 PGA Show to having their own booth last month in Orlando for this year’s edition. Their payroll has recently doubled. Eastside even had a collaboration with the Jordan Brand to create Air Jordan Retro IV sneakers with spiked soles. Their Instagram account has nearly 50,000 followers.
They are reaching the masses in a form most golf companies haven’t. That’s a responsibility Cooper takes seriously, and the industry is continuing to take notice.
“There’s so many new people coming into the game,” Cooper said. “And they are not just old, white, male. … We’ve got new people coming, so how do we ensure that when they arrive to the game, people that look like them understand their needs and understand their concerns?”
Eastside is more than just a start toward that.
Photos: Courtesy Eastside Golf
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