Prince Cunningham took a languid half-swing and casually plucked his golf ball from the second cut of rough behind the ninth green at the TPC Sawgrass Dye’s Valley course.
It landed halfway to the hole, then rolled the rest of the way and gently fell in for a closing birdie.
The Florida A&M senior and Darnell Cookman graduate got a big cheer from his parents and other family and couldn’t help but smile as he picked the ball out of the hole.
It was his only birdie on a tough day as he signed for an 82 a few minutes later and is 19-over 163 for the first two rounds of the 33rd PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship.
But Cunningham has a pretty good attitude about good days and bad days on the golf course.
“It was a very comical end,” he said. “But it’s golf. At the end of the day, I enjoyed being out here, playing at home, in front of family and friends. Golf is going to have its ups and downs but there’s always another day.”
Cunningham, who began his round at the par-4 10th hole, had back-to-back double-bogey 7s at the par-5 16th and 17th holes, righted the ship when he made four solid pars from Nos. 18 to No. 3, then bogeyed four holes in a row.
But regardless of what he scores, it’s the contact the clubs make with the ball and the ebb and flow of a round of golf that has always been at the heart of his love for the game.
And he’ll always be back the next day.
“I love golf because you really decide your own fate,” he said. “It’s so much like life. You have to live with your decisions. Sometimes bad things happen. You have adversity but you have to persevere.”
Cunningham also has had enough success this spring to be able to shrug off a bad day or two. He helped the Rattlers win their first-ever MEAC title on April 19-20 in Greensboro, N.C., finishing fourth to make the all-tournament team. He and his teammates will learn their NCAA regional destination on Wednesday.
He has become one of the area’s most inspirational success stories among college golfers. The son of a longshoreman and an educator, Cunningham was first exposed to the game through the First Tee National Schools program at Mandarin Oaks Elementary when he was 8 years old.
There, had his classmates used Snag Golf equipment — hitting tennis balls with plastic clubs at Velcro targets — instilling the simple notion of hitting a ball at a target.
“I fell in love with the contact, the feeling you get when you caught it right,” he said.
A studious lad from the time he began school, it was the first sport he considered playing and remains his only passion.
His father, Curtis Cunningham, bought him a set of US Kids golf clubs and he began taking Saturday lessons at First Tee–North Florida, at the Brentwood Golf Course. One of his first coaches was the late Calvin Peete, the 1986 Players Championship winner whose wife Pepper was the First Tee director.
His mother Michelle Cunningham, a case manager for community schools, said her son was attracted by the old-fashioned values of golf that include respect for one’s opponent, the golf course, and the rules.
“It’s a gentleman’s game and I think that has always appealed to him,” she said. “His greatest mentor was Calvin Peete, who was always such a gentleman. I really believe Prince stayed with the game because of Mr. Peete.”
Cunningham eventually enrolled at Darnell Cookman’s magnet program for medical arts and played golf at Mandarin High School. One of his teammates was future SEC freshman of the year Brandon Mancheno, and the Mustangs qualified for two state tournaments.
He went to Florida A&M because of its physical therapy program and began playing for coach Mike Rice. Later this month, Cunningham will be one the only college player with First Coast ties to play in the NCAA tournament with a team that was an automatic qualifier.
Beyond that, Cunningham said he may try to play on the Advocates Professional Tour but is set to enroll in Life University in Atlanta in a four-year program to become a chiropractor.
“Prince is a great kid who is going to benefit from the game of golf whether he makes it professionally or not,” Rice said. “A lot of what happens in the business world is on a golf course and he’s got the personality and the drive to make that work for him.”
Curtis Cunningham said he and his wife always taught their son the value of hard work. He said golf has only reinforced that.
“Golf has given him a drive for success and good work habits,” said Curtis Cunningham, a longshoreman. “It’s given him the idea that he can do anything.”
Cunningham said that regardless of the path he chooses, golf will be a big part of his life.
“Golf has given me the foundation to be successful,” he said. “I’ll always play golf no matter what happens because it’s a great game and I love it.”
Phu Khine goes low at Valley
Phu Khine, a junior at North Carolina-Wilmington, birdied her last two holes and shot 67 at the Valley Course to take a five-shot lead in the women’s individual standings at 2-under-par 142. She had one bogey and played her final 14 holes at 4-under to surge past Jahaanvie Walia of Louisiana-Monroe.
In the men’s individual tournament, at the Valley, Timothius Tamardi of Appalachian State eagled the 17th hole and shot 70 to tie Khavish Varadan of UAB at even-par 144.
Playing at the Valley Course, Howard University remained in front in the men’s Division I standings at 38-over, leading Prairie View A&M by one shot. Florida A&M and Alabama State are tied for third, six shots off the pace.
Gregory Odum Jr. (75) leads the Bison at 1-over 145.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi had the low round of the day by 21 shots at the Stadium Course and took a commanding lead in the women’s open team division at 40-over. Delaware State is second at 64-over.
Miles College (Ala.) is the men’s Division II leader over Livingstone (N.C.), at the Stadium.
The PGA WORKS College Championship brings together teams and individual players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and Minority-Serving Institutions.