Roger Steele was starting to fall asleep. He felt like Charlie Brown and his disinterested classmates listening to their teacher drone on, and on, and on. Then five years old, Steele was dreaming of being anywhere other than a golf clinic at Jackson Park in Chicago, where a 17-year-old US Junior Amateur Champion talked about technique.
The teenager encouraged a few of the youth players from the audience to come up and take a swing or two. Steele was suddenly nudged in the back by his father, who wanted his son to wake up and tee it up.
Steele was certainly dressed for the occasion. At the behest of his father, he wore a white visor, shorts and shoes to complement his patterned shirt. He stepped up and let a few fly. After his third shot, a photographer from the Chicago Sun-Times asked the young boy his name.
“The next day me and Tiger Woods were in the newspaper together,” Steele says now.
Coincidentally, Steele’s performance in front of arguably the greatest golfer on the planet foreshadowed where he’d end up today.
Steele, 34, continues to take swings with some of the biggest names in sports as the charismatic host of Range Talk, an original series from Callaway Golf. Guests have included Jon Rahm, Steph Curry, Larry Fitzgerald, and Annika Sörenstam since debuting in January.
The biweekly show offers candid conversations with guests about everything from their golf game to life, business, and more.
“The range is this place where you can learn about life, you can learn about the game, and you can work as hard as you want,” says Jeff Neubarth, Callaway Media Productions executive producer. “Everyone leaves these interviews and they’re smiling. We’re smiling as the production crew. Roger’s smiling because he’s always smiling, and the interview subject is smiling. That just puts you in a good place.”
Unfortunately, Steele hasn’t always been smiling.
Growing up on the west side of Chicago, Roger Steele wasn’t interested in golf. Golf is a game traditionally popular among older white men. It wasn’t on the radar for Steele and his friends. They were too busy trying to emulate the great Michael Jordan, who led their hometown Bulls to six NBA championships between 1991-98.
Roger Steele Sr. had other plans for his only son. A beat cop in the Windy City, Steele Sr. took up the game to further his relationships with colleagues within the department. In his career, he’d seen it didn’t necessarily take a bad kid to do something bad. Steele Sr. introduced his son to the game in the hopes that it would forge a new path. Steele begrudgingly tagged alongside his father and his 40-something-year-old colleagues at Columbus Park.
“At that time there was so little to relate to,” he says. “I didn’t see myself there and see that as a space to be conducive to who I was going to be. I thought I was going to be a basketball player, and I didn’t see any basketball players out there.”
Yet, Steele soldiered on and fulfilled his father’s wishes. He immersed more in the game, playing through high school. When it was time to enroll at the University of Illinois and study civil engineering, though, Steele left his golf clubs at home. Citing his rigorous schooling as an excuse not to play, Steele instead focused on academics. After graduating and getting a job, Steele soon realized engineering wasn’t for him.
“It was the equivalent of breaking up with a girl, getting a rebound, and realizing the rebound was a rebound,” Steele says.
A work-related golf outing inspired Steele to reach back out to play golf again.
“When they figured out I could hit a golf ball, it was like I became a celebrity,” he says. “The way that people opened up to me and communicated with me after — the way they’d pull me into their offices— the whole dynamic changed. It really kick started this love affair for golf because I started to see the game in a completely different light.”
Steele refocused his time, money, and efforts on golf. He moved to Orlando and tried to start a golf nutrition company, but soon realized “golfers do not care about being in better shape.” A failed social impact apparel company left him feeling like a wantrapreneur rather than the entrepreneur he aspired to be. In 2016, he traded in the Sunshine State for the Golden State.
Steele got his first big break in the golf industry at Urban Golf Performance in Los Angeles. Despite starting out handling social media at minimum wage, he quickly worked his way up to marketing director. Steele saw firsthand that basketball players, football players, and other athletes also played. Derek Fisher, James Worthy, Reggie Bush, and Golden Tate used to frequent the facility.
“That was what really got me started in the golf space where I felt like I was really developing a dope golf community,” Steele says.
Steele and former Korn Ferry Tour player Danny Wax co-founded creative content agency HIPE Media in March 2019. But a year later, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and clients tightened their budgets, Steele was again at a crossroads.
“I was sitting around 6 [or] 7 months when COVID hit and thought, ‘Man, I might as well just do what the hell I want to do now. What the hell do I have to lose?’” he says. “The person I was trying to hide or didn’t think there was room for, I thought, ‘Why not just be him?’”
So Steele started to create content. Rather than trying to fit into a box or filter himself for fear of losing opportunities, Steele was himself.
“I was talking to the camera like I was talking to one of my homies,” he says. “Any word I would say during normal dialogue, I said. Whether it was the N-word, fuck, shit — whatever came out of my mouth when the camera was on. As soon as I posted that video, it was like my whole relationship with golf changed.
“That was the first time I ever felt seen as a Black dude that played golf.”
The video went viral. Golf.com shared the eight-minute recording bleeping out the profanities. Steele was praised for being authentic and speaking his mind. His followers on social media increased. Brands like adidas and Skratch began to take notice, as society and the industry started its metamorphosis.
During the pandemic, golf saw its biggest boom in popularity since Woods’ arrival. It was a safe and socially distant outdoor activity for all. Golf-entertainment companies like Topgolf and Drive Shack made the sport’s costly barriers of entry easier for newcomers to the sport. Apparel companies like Bad Birdie, Malbon, Bogey Boys, and Waggle Golf gave golfers more opportunities to have fun and express themselves on and off the course.
Following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other people of color, many at the hands of law enforcement, the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam as individuals and organizations finally found inspiration to support underrepresented communities.
Governing bodies including the PGA Tour, PGA of America, and United States Golf Association (USGA) made diversity and inclusion a priority. The APGA Tour witnessed an uptick in growth and support. Major brands like Cisco and State Farm put money where their mouths were. Athletes including Billy Horschel and Steph Curry created opportunities for those who may not have otherwise been able to achieve success in a sport once referred to as “crack cocaine for old white guys” by journalist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.
“Companies are really seeing opportunity and opening up the game,” Steele says. “The brands are opening up, the governing bodies are opening up, and the people are opening up. It’s not like they’re trying to be like somebody else. People are really asking themselves, ‘Who am I?’ and they’re demonstrating that in so many different ways.
“(Golf) sets the standard for us to be the best version of ourselves. Now, all we got to do is add the authenticity to it.”
Steele continues to be at the forefront of the changing face of golf. Today, he works with Nike, Callaway, Trap Golf, Dewar’s, and Five Iron Golf to help promote and diversify the game. He’s also an ambassador for Youth on Course, a non-profit organization that provides youth players with opportunities to play golf courses for $5 or less. Steele was part of CBS’ broadcast crew for the 2022 PGA Championship. He’s worked with United Airlines to provide $500,000 in travel grants to golf programs at HBCUs.
“All of these people and companies are setting a precedent of what’s required for change,” Steele says. “They’re doing what needs to be done so we can make this game as great as it can be.”
“I’m hoping at the end of all of this, it wasn’t just trendy to do for a minute,” he continues. “But [it] is the standard for how brands should be contributing to the growth of the sport.”
Steele is certainly doing his part. He has his father to thank for encouraging him to get into the game more than two decades ago. It’s only fitting that the final guest on Season 1 of Range Talk is none other than Roger Steele Sr. Father and son returned to Columbus Park in Chicago.
“That’s the full circle, mic drop moment of all this stuff for me,” Steele says. “My dad introduced me to this game, and I didn’t appreciate the game. But all these years later, this is where I’m at and it’s only because of him being willing to take that chance and expose me to this game.
“Without that, none of this is possible.”