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Former Badgers football players try to change the vibes around another sport: golf

Group of friends create Vibez Golf Club, aiming to show anyone can play the sport

A child swings a golf club during an event with a group of former Badgers football players
Vibez Golf Club and First Tee of Southeastern Wisconsin put on event at Noyes Park Golf Course in Milwaukee on July 21, 2023. The event paired Vibez members with kids for a 9-hole competition. Photo courtesy of Vibez Golf Club

NFL running back Dare Ogunbowale played four sports at his high school in Milwaukee, but golf wasn’t one of them.

He started getting into golf during his time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was something he could do away from football. Before college, “golf just wasn’t even a thought.”

“Growing up, I didn’t even see golf as a sport, golf as an avenue for me to experience competition,” he told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time.”

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Ogunbowale and several other former Badgers are trying to change how the sport is perceived with their group, Vibez Golf Club. The group says it wants to “knock down many of the assumptions and misconceptions built around the sport that are deeply rooted with its elitist history.”

A former Badgers football player swings a golf club during a tournament
Rob Wheelwright, a former Badgers football player, is a member of VIbez Golf Club. He plays during a tournament July 22, 2023, at Fire Ridge Golf Club in Grafton. Photo courtesy of Vibez Golf Club

Noe Vital Jr., the group’s CEO, got hooked on golf soon after his time at UW-Madison. He has been friends with Ogunbowale and the other former football players since their time in college.

Vital said on “Central Time” that he didn’t really pick up a golf club until he was about 21 years old. Vital, who is Mexican-American, said once he started playing, he quickly noticed many other players didn’t look like him.

“We have a really unique opportunity in this game that we’re starting to dabble in to really make it more approachable for people like us, people that look like us, talk like us and, quite frankly, just vibe like us,” he said.

A lot of proposed solutions to diversify golf are aimed at increasing access, Vital said. There are plenty of organizations out there trying to do that. But he said he wants Vibez to take on the problem from a different angle.

“Our stance is, you can provide all the access in the world, but if you’re not generating demand or growing interest, you’re never really going to bring new people in,” he said.

In July, Vibez and First Tee of Southeastern Wisconsin put on an event at Noyes Park Golf Course in Milwaukee. The event paired Vibez members with kids for a nine-hole competition. Vibez then hosted another tournament the next day at Fire Ridge Golf Club in Grafton. Vital said the group tries to host Wisconsin events each year, and it has branched out to Colorado and Ohio, too.

Sometimes, he said, children will come up to them in disbelief. “Wait, you guys golf?”

Vital said it has become an unofficial motto for the group to ask: “How can we get someone to walk on a golf course as themselves and walk off as themselves?” No one should have to act a certain way to fit in, he added.

The group started a little more than two years ago. Within six months, Vital said, he was on a call with the PGA Tour to figure out how they could work together.

The group’s founders include several former Badgers players, including NFL running back Melvin Gordon.

Houston Texans and former Badgers running back runs the ball during a preseason game
Houston Texans running back Dare Ogunbowale runs with the ball during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the New England Patriots, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. Before the game, he joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time” to discuss his role with Vibez Golf Club. Steven Senne/AP Photo

Ogunbowale joined “Central Time” from Gillette Stadium hours before a preseason game where his Houston Texans played the New England Patriots. He said playing football is a good excuse for him to fall behind on his golf game, at least relative to some of his colleagues at Vibez.

His drive is probably the weakest part of his game, he said.

“I’m working on it,” he said with a laugh.

Ogunbowale said he wants children to get started earlier than he did. Hopefully, he can show the next generation what golf has to offer.

“It’s huge to me,” he said. “It means a lot for me to expose kids to something that I had no chance to do when I was a young kid growing up in Milwaukee.”