Age is not slowing Willie Simmons down any from the work that he puts in and all the things that he likes to do.
As the founder/president of the Northern California Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association Inc., he leads the nonprofit corporation throughout the year, with the mission “to enrich not only the lives of minority, underprivileged, and at risk youths, but all youths in the Greater Sacramento Metropolitan Area, by exposing them to positive social experiences that promotes character development and inspirational values through a collegiate academic education and the wonderful game of golf,” according to its website, www.ncmjgsa.org.
“I’m in fairly decent health,” said Simmons. “The whole family is involved in one aspect or another in the corporation. They fall right in and fill in the gaps. I just do little things. It’s kind of like a whole family thing.”
Simmons gets out to play golf once a week, by going to either the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento, The Reserve at Spanos Park in Stockton, or Elkhorn Golf Club in Stockton.
“I tell everybody now: ‘I still know how to play the game. But I cannot score the game anymore. You know what I mean?’ ” Simmons said.
“But the last time I was out, I surprised myself. I had three pars in a row.”
Simmons has been around sports, and in particular, golf, most of his life.
“I was never a single-digit index. The lowest I’ve ever been was about an 11 or 12 index,” he said.
Simmons started out in golf by caddying at the age of 7 at a country club, which had a nine-hole course, in his hometown of West Monroe, Louisiana. He did that for two years, in 1937 and ’38.
“We caddied and would get a quarter,” Simmons recalled. “A quarter was like 10 dollars then. About two years later I became interested in trying to learn the game.”
Golf has become a lifelong game and a passion for Simmons, who won his division of the Sacramento City Championship two straight years in the early 1970s.
It’s a game that requires so much – discipline, commitment, integrity, said Simmons, who caddied at the Sunset-Camellia Open Invitational, a $25,000 PGA Tour event, at Sunset Oaks Country Club in Rocklin in October of 1964. The event was won by Bob McAllister of Corona, California.
“I can’t think of any other sport that you can match it up with. You are out there on your own – whatever happens is up to you. You have no help at all,” explained Simmons. “In basketball, you look for the center. You look for the power forward. In track, you look for the handoff on a relay team. But with golf, you are out there on your own.
“I like the integrity and discipline that the sports teaches a kid. It teaches you how to be independent.”
Northern California Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association
Simmons, who is African American, started a youth and adults golf training program for the Northern California Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association Inc. in 1991, as a way to introduce and involve more minorities in golf, getting young people into the game and providing them with instruction.
Training programs are held in the spring, summer and fall.
“We don’t have that many minorities or blacks involved in the game of golf. I thought about the idea of putting together my training program,” said Simmons. “We never turn anyone away from our program.”
Simmons and his family founded the corporation in 1990 and they are all very actively involved with it today.
“Our program is open to anyone, but we put an emphasis on people of color, because they’re the ones that don’t have the opportunity or the funds. We have never turned anyone away,” said Simmons.
The vision of the program, according to its website:
- “To provide an opportunity for minority youths from diverse backgrounds and cultures to be exposed to and learn the great game of golf through a structured professional training program.”
- “Award collegiate academic scholarships and financial assistance to deserving students who demonstrate a desire to achieve higher academic excellence.”
- The goals of the program, according to its website:
- “Research, identify and obtain resources and revenues that will allow the corporation to continue to support its programs.”
- “Network with local, regional and national organizations to promote the development of academic education and youth golf programs, projects and activities.”
- “Continue to obtain the instructional services of certified golf teaching professionals from the PGA, LPGA, and the United States Golf Teachers Federation for our education and golf training programs.”
- “Annually, increase the number of youth participating in our junior golf programs.”
The 2020 youth and adults golf training program has been suspended due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Sacramento’s Cameron Champ, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour who was introduced to the game by his grandfather, Mack Champ, was a participant in the Northern California Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association Inc.
“Cameron grew through my program real fast. He just developed, like overnight,” said Simmons.
“We have had other kids that have come through, that have continued playing golf in college. And we have supported them on scholarship.”
Champ won the Safeway Open, in 2019 at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa.
The Northern California Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association has been a Morton Golf Foundation grant recipient in the past. Ken Morton, Sr., a PGA Master Professional, is the Chief Executive Officer for Morton Golf LLC.
“The Morton Golf Foundation funds programs offering a healthy outdoor recreational environment that stresses the building of lasting personal relationships while seamlessly instilling life’s core values for the youth, disabled, and under-served communities of Sacramento,” according to its website, mortongolffoundation.org/
“I have to take my hat off to Ken Morton Sr. and his crew,” said Simmons. “He has supported our program and still supports it, right to the day. I take my hat off to him for sticking with us through the years.”
The NCMJGSA also has a Collegiate Academic Scholarship Program. So far, the program has awarded over 100 collegiate scholarships, each one covering five years.
“You don’t have to be part of our youth golf training to qualify for this scholarship,” said Simmons, who has served on the Editorial Advisory Board for African American Golfer’s Digest. “They don’t have to be a golfer to get a scholarship.”
To be eligible to receive a NCMJGSA collegiate academic scholarship, the following requirements must be met, according to the website:
- Graduate from high school with a Grade Point Average of 2.0 or better.
- Receive a General Education Diploma with a GPA of 2.0 or better.
- Be accepted and enrolled as a full-time student with 12 or more credit hours at an accredited college or university of his/her choice.
- Be accepted and registered as a full-time student at an accepted trade or vocational school.
- To keep the scholarship for five years or graduation, one must continue to be a full-time student and maintain the GPA of 2.0 or better. If the student fails to be a full-time student or maintain the required GPA, he/she will be allowed one probationary semester to bring his/her credit hours and GPA to the acceptable levels or he/she will not qualify for additional assistance.
“We give scholarships to minority youth to go to college and they don’t have to be part of our golf program to qualify,” said Simmons. “They don’t have to be a minority to qualify. It’s anyone that meets our minimum requirements. We accept applications from anyone.”
NCMJGSA is nearing 1,800 participants who have come through the program since 1991.
The program has received support over the years from several PGA Tour Champions’ players, including Kevin Sutherland of Sacramento, Gary Player, Lee Elder, Charlie Sifford, Walter Morgan and Charlie Owens. Each player has taken time to put on a clinic.
The U.S. Golf Association has awarded the NCMJGSA Foundation Grants in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001.
NCMJGSA has also received additional support, with funds from the PGA of America and the Northern California Golf Association.
NCMJGSA’s annual fundraiser is its Sacramento River City Golf Classic. This year’s tournament was canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
“We will try to put it on for next year,” said Simmons.
He is so very appreciative and thankful for all the support that the program has received over the years.
“I would personally like to thank those businesses, corporations, individuals, and those who have supported us through the years, for us to obtain what we have been able to accomplish over the years,” he said.
Simmons’ background in sports
Simmons was 12 when he moved with his family from West Monroe, Louisiana to Oakland.
He played football, basketball and ran track at McClymonds High School in Oakland.
“I played football until I got hurt,” he said. “We ran a short punt formation. I did some tackling and I could block.”
He ran the 440 and the mile relay.
He played center in basketball, but also handled the ball.
After graduating from McClymonds in 1948, Simmons moved to Sacramento. His parents had moved there a year earlier.
“I’ve called Sacramento home ever since,” he said.
He played basketball for two years, from 1948-1950, at Sacramento City College.
He was drafted and spent two years on active duty in the United States Army, stationed in Germany, during the Korean War. He ran track in the Army, and competed in a meet in Berlin, Germany.
He played basketball on a U.S. team that compiled a 54-5 record, winning the last 44 in a row. “We beat everything in Europe. We beat the French team and German team – everything,” said Simmons, who later spent six years in the United States Army Reserve.
Returning home to Sacramento
Upon returning home, Simmons worked and continued his education, taking evening classes at Grant Technical College in Sacramento and graduating in 1955.
Simmons played basketball on town teams in the area.
He spent 36 years working for the United States Department of Defense, with 31 of those years at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento County. He retired in 1986.
Simmons’ daughter, LaVerne Simmons-Barnett, played on national champion volleyball teams for head coach Debby Colberg at Sacramento State in 1980 and ’81, and now works as Director, Accounting Services in the school’s Financial Services department. Sac State won the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) Div. III title in 1980 and the NCAA Division II title in 1981.
For more information
For more information, contact Willie Simmons at (916) 455-3076 or (916) 812-7744.
Simmons is also the president of the corporation’s Board of Directors.
Marty James is a freelance writer who makes his home in Napa. He retired on June 4, 2019, after spending 40 years as a sports writer, sports editor and executive sports editor for the Napa Valley Register, a daily newspaper in Napa County. He is a 1979 graduate of Sacramento State and a member of the California Golf Writers & Broadcasters Association. He was inducted into the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame in 2016.