The second-year Underrated Tour is open to junior golfers between the ages of 12 and 18. The 2023 schedule features four regional tournaments, followed by a tour championship at Lake Merced Golf Club in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Underrated Tour)

First Published by The First Call

When NBA star Stephen Curry was a high school basketball player in Charlotte, North Carolina, he called himself “a skinny, scrawny kid … a late bloomer” in a 2022 Charlotte Observer interview. Neither of the state’s blue-blood college programs, Duke or North Carolina, gave him the time of day.

Why would they? He was a 5-foot-9, 150-pound guard playing at a private school, with only a connection to a NBA veteran father, Dell Curry.

What has played out since Curry graduated from Charlotte Christian in 2006, through an emergence as a force at next-door Davidson College and as the NBA’s top shooter evokes thoughts of pursuing dreams no matter the odds, both for his main sport, basketball, and his off-court passion, golf.

A similar level of ascension can be envisioned for Jaden Soong, a 13-year-old golfer from Burbank, California. The rising eighth grader is small in stature — 5-foot-2 and 115 pounds — but his golf game has proven large as he can mash drives in the 280-yard range. In early June, Soong became the youngest player to reach the final round of U.S. Open qualifying, missing out on becoming the youngest player to ever reach golf’s U.S. national championship during that final phase.

“I definitely have to go out there and prove that I have game because when you play with bigger kids maybe they don’t respect you as much,” Soong says. “They expect to beat you. But in golf, it’s not your size that matters as much. It’s not like football or basketball, but how sharp you are mentally to get ahead of them.”

Soong is part of Curry’s effort to bring golf competition to boys and girls age 12-18. Curry started the Underrated Tour in 2019 as a basketball showcase for players who might not have otherwise been scouted by college coaches, just like him. Last year, Curry launched Underrated Golf with a focus on providing equity, access and opportunity to young golfers by paying their way to national events during the summer and exposing them to top courses and college coaches when they otherwise may not have the resources to travel the very expensive national junior circuit.

 Jaden Soong — Nicole Sardinha
Jaden Soong, left, and Nicole Sardinha won the respective boys and girls titles of the season-opening event at The Park in West Palm Beach, Florida, on June 27, 2023.
(Photo: Underrated Tour)

In late June, Soong flew from California to play in Florida for the first time. He shot 66-73 to win the first event of the 2023 Underrated Golf season by one stroke at The Park, a newly renovated West Palm Beach municipal course. On the girls’ side, Nicole Sardinha of Doral, Florida, shot 72-70 to win by two.

The field for the season debut was welcomed by DJ Khaled, a renowned recording executive, producer and rapper — and golf nut — alongside Seth Curry, Steph’s younger brother who is also an NBA veteran and golf enthusiast. Scores ranged from 65 to 98 on a course that stretched beyond 6,700 yards. Each player was able to choose their walk-up song on the first tee, with Soong choosing Tupac Shakur’s “California Love.” Steph Curry FaceTimed the winners after their rounds and encouraged them “to keep working hard.”

“When you’re around greatness, that greatness rubs off on you,” said Khaled in a pep talk to the young golfers. “Our job is to be around greatness at all times. This positive energy, this group right here, if I’m around this all day, I’m gonna be a plus-two (handicap).”

Aside from being basketball’s greatest long-range shooter, Curry is also being recognized this summer as golf’s top long-range planner.

Last week, Curry and NBA basketball’s Golden State Warriors teammate Klay Thompson faced the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs teammates Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelsey in the next televised bro-fest, The Match. This Saturday, at the conclusion of the second Underrated Tour event at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, Curry will be honored by the PGA Tour as the 2023 Ambassador of Golf during an evening banquet at the same location. On July 21, “Stephen Curry: Underrated,” a documentary film, debuts in theaters and on Apple TV.

Curry’s latest foray into golf follows an investment in college golf. In August 2019, Curry guaranteed full funding of Howard University’s men’s and women’s golf teams for six years as the school added NCAA Division I teams for the 2020–21 school year. Howard’s men have dominated the PGA Works Championship, a season-ending event for HBCUs. The Washington, D.C., school produced the medalist in 2021, 2022 and 2023, and won the team titles each of the last two years. Howard’s men barely missed making the NCAA Tournament in early May, finishing five strokes behind champion Long Island University in the Northeast Conference tournament.

The tour features four regional events with boys and girls fields of 96 players, made up of exempt competitors and those who qualify regionally. There are separate competitions among the boys and girls, but no age groups. Tees are varied by age brackets (12-14 and 15-18).

In addition to stops in West Palm Beach and Akron, Underrated Golf will also visit Paiute Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Chambers Bay, the 2015 U.S. Open site, outside of Seattle, Washington. The Curry Cup, a season-ending tour championship, is slated for Aug. 20-23 at Lake Merced in San Francisco, California. The finale brings together the top 12 point earners in both the boys and girls sides.

“While golf has always been a passion of mine, I can’t turn a blind eye to the major inequities that exist in the sport amongst underrepresented individuals,” said Curry upon being named the Ambassador of Golf recipient. “I believe that golf, unlike any other sport, offers a very powerful vehicle to positively shape and impact an individual’s social and professional career across their lifetime. It is my hope that through this exciting endeavor, we can create a brighter and sustainable future for these young prospects.”

DJ Khaled — Underrated Tour
DJ Khaled, a noted DJ, record executive, rapper and golf enthusiast, speaks to the junior golfers at the Underrated Tour’s opening tournament in West Palm Beach, Florida. 
(Photo: Underrated Tour)

The game changer is that all expenses are paid to attract those who can’t afford entry fees and national travel for larger junior golf competition. It’s a benefit that became available with recent relaxing of amateur status guidelines by the USGA.

Will Lowery, a former professional golfer, current golf media influencer and Charlotte native, is the social media presence and organizer behind his friend’s Underrated idea. Lowery grew up in inner-city Charlotte playing public courses and was always eyeballing ways to break into the sport more easily. He and Curry are a similar age — Lowery is 38, Curry 35 — and brainstormed on how to make this type of pathway a reality.

All travel, entry fees and accommodations are covered, participants’ sport golf bags, travel bags and shirts and hats feature the Underrated logo. Each participant can have one parents’ expenses covered also, Soong said. Much of that is due to KPMG’s sponsorship, announced earlier this year and piggybacking off the global professional service firm’s nine-year sponsorship of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

“It’s hard to play good golf when you know your parents are sacrificing a bill to get you there,” says Lowery, who selects many of the invitees.

“The silver lining is seeing kids being noticed by college coaches,” Lowery says. “I get calls all the time now from coaches asking about this young man or this young lady. When their names are being noticed that means we’re doing something right.

“We still have a way to go. At an introduction to golf, 17 percent of black and brown kids participate in the game of golf in some capacity. But we’ve got to get them further in the competition space. In the high-level junior golf space, there’s only 2 percent. In college, it’s less than 1 percent. Hopefully, we can serve as a feeder system, increase the participation rate in golf and open the eyes of kids in the career space.”

The 2022 winners during the inaugural season displayed those wares. Roman Solomon, a junior at the IMG Academy in Sarasota, Florida, is the son of former major-league baseball player Bobby Bonilla and is eyeing college opportunities as he plays junior events. Ashley Shaw, a 13-year-old from Phoenix, Arizona, won the girls division in 2022 and is playing national junior events this year. Jaxson Kenzo, a Santa Monica, California, resident, lost to Solomon in a playoff at the 2022 finale and is in the PGA Golf Management program at New Mexico State.

It’s the beginning of an opportunity to prove themselves, just like Curry accomplished a decade ago.