Good Vibez: Broncos RB Melvin Gordon, friends try to change how people who 'look like us' see golf

·7 min read

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Checked into the team hotel and finished with practice No. 1 of training camp, Denver Broncos running back Melvin Gordon still had a new offseason passion on his mind late last month.

He had it perched on his hair, too.

Gordon popped on a hat emblazoned with “Vibez Golf Club” for a chat with reporters and said he had just taken the game up seriously this summer before providing a frank assessment of his ability level.

“I suck. I just want to let y’all know that,” Gordon said with a laugh. “But I’m getting lessons and in a couple of years, I’m going to be nice.”

His friends, Noe Vital and Darius Hillary, responded in unison when asked later if Gordon's harsh self-evaluation was accurate.

“Yes.”

They together are three of nine founding members of Vibez, which at this point is essentially a group of friends who have an awful lot of fun playing golf. But they’ve all set out to introduce and make golf more accessible to as many people as possible, particularly in low-income areas and minority communities.

“When you boil down Vibez, we’re simply trying to make golf a mental option in the minds of people like us. Right now it’s not,” said Vital, a Mexican-American and Vibez’ CEO. “There are so many kids waking up in Milwaukee, (Wisconsin), where I grew up, today that they don’t even consider golf an option. They don’t even think about it.

“We’re just trying to get people to go from ‘golf isn’t for me’ to ‘I can golf if I want to.’ That’s really what we’re trying to achieve.”

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Denver Broncos running back Melvin Gordon (25) following training camp at the UCHealth Training Center.
Denver Broncos running back Melvin Gordon (25) following training camp at the UCHealth Training Center.

Vital, who has extensive marketing experience in the startup world, was friends with Gordon at the University of Wisconsin and then stayed connected with him in San Diego, where Vital works and lives and Gordon was drafted by the Chargers in 2015. They talked about “disrupting” golf as far back as then, but Vibez came up as an idea on a group text chain while everybody was hunkered down early in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“I just wanted to do something different and change the world in some way other than football,” Gordon said. “Football is a tough game and not everyone can play it. The truth is everyone can’t play football, everyone can’t play basketball, but anyone can play golf. That’s just what it is. You can play golf for as long as you want, and that’s the difference. All of us have a timestamp on this football stuff, so we just want to make the game diverse and bring eyeballs it to it.”

In its current stage, Vibez is exclusively about building awareness around golf to an audience that is underserved by the more traditional community.

“We’re going to show the game of golf and we’re going to show people that look like us that you can go play golf,” Vital said. “You don’t have to go through this process, fit a mold, check this box, check that box. Just get out there and play.”

Rob Wheelwright started playing when he was in middle school in Columbus, Ohio, because his dad loved the game, but stopped when he got to high school because, “I realized that none of my friends played golf. None of my friends were talking about golf. The people I was around day to day, family members, they didn’t talk about golf. So eventually I hit a point where I kind of got away from golf because it wasn’t relatable to my everyday life.”

Now a middle school teacher in Columbus and a Vibez founding team member – the group is Vital and eight former Wisconsin football players – Wheelwright said he hopes more kids around the age where he got into the game feel like it’s an option and then have the support to stick with it.

“Like any other sport, you have good days and bad days, but the more you have fun with something, the more you want to come back and continue to do it and do better at it,” Wheelwright said. “I hope Vibez Golf Club opens peoples’ eyes that you can be whoever you want to be – whether you’re Black or white, whether you don’t come from the nicest areas or an area that might not even have golf courses around, you can still travel and get on these courses because they’re welcoming.”

Of course, in most places there are barriers. Equipment is expensive, greens fees add up and it takes a long time to get good. And that’s before any conversation about minorities feeling welcome on golf courses, at country clubs or in the golf community more broadly.

“When I got into the game, I got into it for what I like to say now is the wrong reason,” Vital said of the time period when he moved to San Diego after graduating from business school. “I got into it because, like, you play golf when you make it. That was the mentality behind it. I got down here and started playing golf, and after a year or so, it doesn’t take long to realize that something ain’t right. These vibes are off. I’m playing on certain courses and don’t really feel welcome – not like somebody comes out and tells you to get off the golf course, but you get some of that energy and those looks.”

So, step one for Vibez is to try to solve what they see as golf’s attractiveness issue in the places they come from.

“I heard a WNBA player say this and I love it: ‘You’ve got to show the game to grow the game,’” Vital said. “In golf, everyone in golf is hashtag grow the game, but you’ve got to make it attractive first. That’s our entire focus right now.”

They’ve hosted a tournament two straight summers in Madison, Wisconsin. In Denver, they did an event with the Boys & Girls Club and also staged a match play competition featuring four Broncos– safety Justin Simmons, wide receiver Courtland Sutton, punter Sam Martin and linebacker Josey Jewell – plus Gordon and other Vibez GC members and put as much content as they could on social media.

"(They) spanked us pretty good," Gordon said.

They did another, similar outing with Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, and the video is in the works. Hillary had friends reach out that led to an event for women in Arizona.

“I thought it was honestly pretty cool how people reached out and said, ‘Hey, this is something I actually want to try and you guys make it look fun,’” he said.

The next phases include building a community of members and then helping figure out ways to more effectively get young people actually on the golf course and playing. On one hand, they’re just a group of friends who get together and play golf. It is clear, though, that they think something bigger is afoot.

“It means a lot me for somebody to go out there with a fitted hat, with a chain on and just being them rather than having to be on the regulation of you have to wear this and you have to wear that,” Gordon said. “I don’t want to go play something where I don’t feel like I can be me. That’s the goal. The goal is to have someone with some dreads or something walk up there and put that jacket on in The Masters, win The Masters.

“That’s the goal for me, that’s what I want to come out of this.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Broncos' Melvin Gordon hopes 'Vibez Golf Club' will be a game-changer