Ohio’s Tiana Jones (one of 8 Black female PGA Professionals) on diversity in golf: ‘That’s what drives me’

·11 min read

While Tiana Jones was attending Alliance High School near Canton, Ohio, she was drawn to the idea of solving mysteries through science.

She majored in criminal justice at South Carolina State, intent on becoming a forensic toxicologist.

But as she got closer to graduation, some of the grisly scenes and appalling crimes she encountered made her question her path. It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle what she saw, it was more about feeling helpless to serve the victims.

“I’m more on the optimistic side, the bring joy, bring a sense of creativity and fun to people more so than constantly dealing with a lot of sadness and just disgusting, gruesome acts that some people are capable of,” Jones said.

“These people’s lives have been impacted in such a negative way that I didn’t feel there was anything I could say or do, nor could I really empathize because I’ve never had to experience anything of that sort. My last internship was really what put that into perspective for me.”

So instead, Jones chose joy.

Now 29 and a year into her position as director of instruction at Topgolf Cleveland, Jones has become a trailblazer in her favorite sport.

Jones is among eight African American female PGA Professionals in the country, joining Renee Powell of Clearview Golf Club in East Canton. According to the PGA of America, there are 173 Black PGA Professionals among nearly 28,000 members currently active.

Tiana Jones, left, PGA pro and director of instruction at Topgolf in Independence, works with Kevin Briola during a lesson last week.
Tiana Jones, left, PGA pro and director of instruction at Topgolf in Independence, works with Kevin Briola during a lesson last week.

Tiana Jones, left, PGA pro and director of instruction at Topgolf in Independence, works with Kevin Briola during a lesson last week.

Jones recently was named to the 2021 PGA LEAD Class, the organization’s leadership development program.

Focused on growing the game, especially among minorities and women, Jones dreams of starting her own golf academy, and those who know her believe that will happen.

“It’s just a prayer in the sky, but she’s got all the credentials to do it. All I can do is encourage her with words,” her father, Paul Leonard Matthews Jones Jr., 72, of Alliance, said in a recent phone interview.

“As long as she keeps those big dreams in front of her and continues to reach for those goals … She’s not afraid of hard work, from what I’ve seen,” Powell said by phone.

“I can definitely see that,” said John Lesieutre, director of operations at Topgolf Cleveland. “As she continues to build her name and her brand, she will have the ability to do many things down the road as she continues to get recognized throughout the PGA.”

Growing up with golf

Jones has played golf since she was 3 and said she won her first tournament at age 7. But she also tried softball, soccer, volleyball, basketball and track.

Her only instructor was her father, a retired teaching pro who gave her a set of plastic clubs and was amazed at her coordination. Her mother, Freddie Ann Jones, a retired registered nurse, was the champion at Sleepy Hollow Golf Club in Alliance for over 20 years until Tiana beat her. Tiana and her older sister Tiara, who also competed in golf, tagged along on rounds with their parents.

At Alliance in 2009, Tiana became the first African American to win the Ohio girls state high school golf championship. She captained the women’s team while at South Carolina State.

It wasn’t until Jones graduated with honors with her criminal justice degree in 2014 that she staked her future on golf.

She was working at a country club in Orangeburg, South Carolina, when she met a young woman going through its apprentice program with the goal of becoming a PGA Professional. The woman explained that did not mean someone who plays on the PGA or LPGA tours, but someone who works behind the scenes on the operational side.

“As I started investigating, I realized there’s so many other avenues being a PGA Professional,” Jones said in a Feb. 13 phone interview. “All these different things help people build a passion for the game the way I have. For me it was like, ‘I really like this. I like what I’m seeing, what I’m experiencing.’

“I was the person in college that helped my peers with their golf swings and games because my coach was the soccer coach. They [said], ‘Hey, Tiana, you’re really good at this.’ I started thinking, ‘You’re right, I really do enjoy teaching, I really do enjoy meeting new people and being around golf 24/7.’”

Jones learned of the PGA Golf Management Program at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. Receiving a scholarship, she was a four-time individual winner of the PGA Works Collegiate Championship, considered the most diverse and culturally significant tournament in golf.

Jones said the program usually takes 4½ years to complete, but she finished in three. Not long after, she was elected to PGA membership.

Since then, she’s worked in Corpus Christi, Texas, the Dallas/Fort Worth area and in Quantico, Maryland. While part of the UMES program, she interned at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and at Bandon Dunes (Oregon), among the nation’s most prestigious courses.

“I felt if I could get more people, especially our juniors, to build the character traits and treat people the way they want to be treated, that we wouldn’t have these things in our community as we continue to grow as a society,” Jones said.

Tiana Jones competes in the 2009 Division I state girls golf championship while at Alliance High School. Jones won the event, becoming the first Black player to win the title.

‘It was a struggle’

Jones did not hesitate to discuss the obstacles she faced playing junior golf, with her mother and sister the only African American females she knew in the sport.

“It was a struggle,” Jones said. “There weren’t junior programs like there are now. There weren’t junior summer camps unless you were members of country clubs. We were the only African American family at our country club.”

But Jones said there was never a time when it became too much to make her give up golf.

“Even though there were a lot of hurdles through that, [I don’t know] that I would mentally say, ‘I don’t want to play golf anymore because I’m the only one out here.’ I don’t think it would have ever got to that point because I realized that golf is my passion, it’s something that I love to do and no one can take that from me,” she said. “Even though I may not feel welcomed, even though my family has been at tournaments where I’ve had profanity and disgusting words said to me — or hatred, racial words said to me— it’s never discouraged me or my family from wanting to play golf.

“Some of the looks from adults at country clubs, members, you could feel the tension. Have you ever walked into a room where you weren’t wearing the right things? Say you were supposed to dress formal and you came casual, the looks that you get, the judgment, even though people may not even say anything, their eyes will do a lot of the talking for them and their body language, that’s the feeling. Being the new kid in school and walking into the cafeteria and don’t know where to sit. That feeling of not being welcomed is what you feel when you go to a country club or a golf course or a tournament and everybody’s staring at you, like, ‘What are you doing here?’

“All it did was motivate me to either beat you worse or prove you wrong. ‘I know you don’t think I belong here, but let’s let our clubs and our skills do the talking on who really doesn’t belong here.’”

In most of the tournaments she played in Ohio, Jones was the only Black female. She longed to meet another around her age, longed for a relationship where they could push each other.

That didn’t happen until she competed at Hawthorne Hills Golf Course in Lima, Ohio, against several young Black women from Florida.

“I would see them again every year in Toledo, but outside of that there was no one,” Jones said. “Being the only person that showed up at a tournament that looks like you is very lonely. It makes you question are you doing the right things. ‘Where is everybody?’ Are you not supposed to be playing this sport because everybody else, you don’t share any commonalities with them other than the fact that you both swing a golf club? ‘Why is it that my friends won’t play golf?’

“The experience that I had growing up as a junior is basically what molded me into being the PGA Professional I am now.”

Even her high school years provided challenges. Jones attended Catholic school much of her life and started out at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, but transferred midway through her sophomore year.

As a youth, Jones relied on her close-knit family. Paul L.M. Jones taught his daughters many skills that would benefit them in golf, including chess, which he agreed could help them think ahead and plot their way around a course.

While her mother said Tiana had to get out of Alliance to accomplish what she has, Freddie Ann Jones said the strong will her daughter has shown was always there.

“Oh, yeah. She was always at the top of her class, she’s always outgoing,” her mother said. “She always was that type of person that she’s not going to say she can’t do when she can.”

Jones said she decided years ago that she want to be a role model for African American girls and minorities, just like Tiger Woods.

Tiana Jones is a PGA pro and the director of instruction at Topgolf in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

‘I needed to do more’

At Topgolf’s Independence facility, Jones teaches individuals of all ages, leads group lessons and private clinics and manages private events for corporate groups and fundraisers. She’s also creating curriculums and programs that help people get started or continue in golf.

“As I started getting older and started realizing what those barriers were, why golf wasn’t as diverse, it made me realize that I needed to do more than just be a representation eye-wise,” said Jones, who lives in Parma. “I needed to jump in and start helping the communities and people understand the benefits of golf, understand what golf can do for them, their careers. Even women now I have conversations with, just getting a seat at the table corporate-wise. A lot of business is done on the golf course. A lot of the intimidation factor has to be overcome just for people to get to the golf course.”

Lesieutre said he knows he may not be able to keep Jones for long.

“I’m very proud of her,” Lesieutre said by phone. “I think we’re very fortunate to have her. She’s able to promote the game of golf, specifically to females and any minority that has any concern. It really breaks down all walls and all borders to be able to play this game.”

Powell, who has known the Jones family for years, said this is the first time there have been two Black female members in the Northern Ohio PGA Section.

“Pretty amazing,” Powell said. “I know she put in her name to run for a position on the board. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty bold’ because she just moved here, didn’t know anybody, thought she would jump in and try to do something, which is great.”

Jones seems to have a clear picture of her vision.

“My ultimate goal is to have my own golf academy that would introduce golf to all walks of life and nurture them through that journey in golf of playing for a lifetime,” she said. “Being able to bring a community together, bring families together, showcase benefits that golf produces — networking opportunities, scholarships …

“If we can grow those numbers on a local level, it would be easier to get those students into these schools. And just diversify the game with more women, more kids, all ages. That’s what drives me forward, in any way, in any shape that I can do that.”

Jones was torn when asked if she considers herself a trailblazer. She looks at Althea Gibson, the first Black tennis player to win Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Open singles titles, all in 1956, who went on to become the first African American to compete on the LPGA Tour. Jones looks at Powell, 74, who became the second on tour.

“Yes, no, because I feel like Renee Powell and Althea Gibson, the others that have come before me have done that,” Jones said. “All I’m trying to do is continue to build on that legacy, define my own legacy and continue to grow it in that direction.”

Jones’ father, of course, sees it differently.

“Oh, yeah, she’s a trailblazer,” he said. “She’s going to be a heck of a trailblazer.”

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.