Here in these times of troubles and woe — pandemic, a stressed economy, political strife — if you want to tell a comeback story, you may have to get in line.
But the Texas twosome of Ira Molayo and Dave Ridley have a head start. Their tale of Cedar Crest Golf Course and the recovery-seeking neighborhood of South Dallas that surrounds it has been some years in the making, with progress to point to and a powerful spirit behind it.
Molayo is a “product of this neighborhood,” as he puts it—a Black golf professional from the underprivileged Cedar Crest area who’s worked at its city-owned golf facility since 2008, much of that time as its Concessionaire and General Manager / Director of Golf. A Northern Texas PGA board member and a 2017 inductee into the African American Golf Hall of Fame, Molayo established the I Am a Golfer Foundation in 2018. The purpose of the 501(c)(3) entity is to “help bring about community renewal in South Dallas through golf and golf-related programs at Cedar Crest Golf Course.”
Partnering with Molayo on the foundation work, and on the renaissance of Cedar Crest generally, is retired airline executive Ridley. His long and successful stint as head of marketing for Southwest Airlines equips Ridley in his current task of helping sell the hidden-in-plain-sight wonders of Cedar Crest, an A.W. Tillinghast marvel from 1919. It is best known as the site of Walter Hagen’s fourth straight PGA Championship in 1927, though it also hosted the Negro National Open in 1954 and the U.S. Amateur Public Links later that year.
“Good things have been happening at Cedar Crest with Ira running the facility, especially since he persuaded the city to finally make a significant investment in the golf course and the clubhouse,” says Ridley. “It’s a testament to his abilities and his determination.” Ever-greater levels of success are predicated by the duo on expansion of the customer base. “I’m here as the ‘North Dallas Brand Ambassador,’ whose job is to connect what’s happening at Cedar Crest to the greater world of Dallas golf and business.”
A world traveler who’s played outstanding layouts on multiple continents, Ridley had his heart broken by the course’s natural terrain and design excellence, which he first experienced at Molayo’s invitation. Cedar Crest was a posh private club in its brief heyday, which basically ended with the stock market crash of 1929. City-owned since 1946, it’s been known for most of its existence as the “Black course” in the Big D’s municipal golf portfolio. Comparisons with East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta are inevitable, and not unwelcome to Molayo and Ridley, even though the depths of urban blight and crime in the Atlanta community surrounding Bobby Jones’s original home club exceed what Cedar Crest has been through. After a string of years averaging 32,000 rounds annually, the facility fought through its seven-week coronavirus closure last spring to get to 34,000-plus rounds in 2020.
“We just need to get trial,” Ridley states, rolling out a classic marketing term. “No committed golfer who plays this course doesn’t come back. On a larger scale, we need white people of this city to feel that Cedar Crest is part of their American experience. People from North Dallas who have made it past the cultural divide and seen first-hand the professionalism and pride of the staff, along with the quality of the golf, they get it.”
That staff under Molayo’s supervision is primarily African-American, from the streets and neighborhoods surrounding the golf course. “What Cedar Crest and I Am a Golfer combine to do is impact 100 kids every year,” says Molayo, “from the 70-plus in our golf program, to the internships and jobs held down by 14 young people, to our college scholarships in support of eight students.”
If what the pair has built sounds a lot like what First Tee provides, well, there’s an explanation for why they created their own non-profit. Molayo was a major participant in First Tee of Dallas activities for many years, until the program’s itinerant status was solved by the construction of Trinity Forest Golf Club — the high-end private club’s arrival brought with it a home base for First Tee’s Dallas branch. As Molayo tells it, the proximity to the Cedar Crest neighborhood, as the crow flies, didn’t translate to participation by the local youngsters. “It required a 15-minute drive across a major interstate to get from here to there,” Ira notes. “Turned out not to work, so I had to try to continue creating programs.”
Molayo will always be a First Tee enthusiast, but he likes how fully golf-centric his own youth program manages to be, due to the on-property employment component. He knows first-hand that when teenage kids of color walk by the neighborhood golf course 100 times or more, every trip past strengthens the message that this expanse of trees and grass is meant for someone else. When those young people get invited onto the property, things change a little. When they learn how to make their way around the course and notch a few pars, they see themselves differently. This happens yet again when they’ve become trained as workers at the course and get mentored as interns. And it happens yet again if and when they earn scholarship money. The capper is to have scholarship recipients come back and begin their professional golf careers at Cedar Crest — few programs of this type can claim such full-spectrum social benefits.
The I Am a Golfer Foundation is still in its early going, but golf as a participant sport has nice momentum and new calls for social justice seem to be echoing throughout the land. “We don’t have six-figure checks coming in yet, to really drive the scholarship program,” Ridley says, “but we’re making our case and we’re not going anywhere. This course sells itself and Ira’s story sells itself — the best parts of that story are yet to be written.”