Before Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl A. Cooper made history with the first collaboration on an Air Jordan golf shoe, they were breaking barriers on the links. They were members of the 2010 golf team at Morehouse University, winning the first ever national championship for an HBCU in the sport. A decade later, the duo is breaking down barriers with their brand Eastside Golf that’s helping diversify golf’s image.
And they’re doing it their own way.
It all started in 2009 when Ajanaku and Cooper met at Morehouse. A year later they were part of a team that won the Division II national championship. It was a big deal, not just to the team and university but to the golf world as a whole.
“It was such a big deal that they put us in the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida, right next to Tiger Woods,” says Ajanaku. “It showed that there are golfers of all ethnicities that can play at a very high level.”
After graduating from Morehouse, Ajanaku and Cooper’s paths diverged for a while. Ajanaku chased the dream of becoming a professional golfer, while Cooper worked as the first Black golf pro at Detroit Golf Club before returning home to his native Delaware.
Ajanaku’s goal of becoming a pro on the PGA Tour is what sparked the idea of Eastside Golf, a brand that could relate to people like him. He played in mini tour events, won a few, but couldn’t find enough sponsor money to continue on with his career. So he settled into a finance job. That didn’t satisfy him, so he started to work on Eastside Golf.
“I started out with the logo. The logo was just supposed to be me. And it was just going to go on my polo and on my bag,” Ajanaku says. “I showed it to Earl, and he said, ‘Yo, put that on a T-shirt.’ Got a Gildan, ironed it on, it cost me 20 bucks. And then I went downtown Detroit and I maybe got stopped 50 times, no exaggeration. 50 times. Who are you, what’s that logo, do you play golf, and where can I get it?”
The brand’s logo, which now sits on the tongue of an Air Jordan 4 golf shoe that’s releasing this weekend, is a Black man swinging a golf club with a chain on.
“I felt like a lot of those people understood what we were trying to bring into the game of golf and make it look different,” says Ajanaku of the reception to his brand and the logo. “Make it stand out and push the game further.”
While Ajanaku was sowing the seeds of Eastside Golf Club’s initial phase, Cooper was teaching people how to play golf and was rated as one of the best young teachers in America by Golf Digest. One of those people is President Joe Biden. Cooper said Biden told him he loves going to the course to drive a golf cart, because it is the only place he gets to get behind a wheel, given that “he’s chauffeured everywhere.“
“You got added pressure of everybody watching you give a lesson and then you got secret service right there, too,” says Cooper of teaching Biden golf. “So it’s just one of those things where you don’t want to move too fast. You’re constantly just second-guessing everything that you’re doing because if I try to grab him and put him in a certain golf position, I want them to know, it’s OK. Don’t come after me.”
The Air Jordan collaboration has put the brand on a lot of people’s radars, but it all came together when C.J. Paul, Chris Paul’s brother, introduced the concept of the project to longtime Jordan employee Gentry Humphrey.
“G had flipped the deck over to MJ, because they’re all big golfers. It was just one of the things like, ‘Holy shit, we got to take this to Michael.’ With [Michael Jordan’s golf course] The Grove opening up, it was just a perfect project,” says Ajanaku. He goes on to say that James Whitner, who owns sneaker stores A Ma Maniere and Social Status, also helped support the brand and helped get the project done. They also received help and support from former Jordan designer Frank Cooke.
The duo ended up meeting Michael Jordan himself through former New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia. “CC invited us down to The Grove. And literally we went out and played nine holes. MJ was kicking it inside or going inside. He recognized who I am. I’m like, ‘Holy shit. MJ knows who I am,’” says Cooper. “I had that moment where he was like, ‘Alright, you can move now.’ Because you just froze.”
Ajanaku also has a story of seeing Jordan after a session at the driving range, where they then shared cigars and Cincoro tequila, and he says Jordan gave him validation on why they wanted to collaborate with Eastside Golf.
As far as the Air Jordan 4 golf cleat, which is mainly white and blue with their logo on the tongue and a portrait on the outsole, the duo says the process for the shoe was handed down to them from Jordan Brand.
“I mean, honestly, you don’t really get no choice when it comes to [what model you want to work on]. You collab with what they give you,” says Ajanaku. “With us, the 4 was fun. I already knew what I wanted it to look like and I had started mocking up a few designs beforehand. If we had a choice, we’d choose something different. But the 4 was perfect.”
Both say they’d like to work on an Air Jordan 6 golf shoe at some point.
Ajanaku says it’s huge for him to get his logo on the tongue of the shoe, especially for it to be a Black man where you can see his skin tone.
“I mean it just sets an example and it sets, I would say, future people or the next generation that want to configure shoes or make a brand,” he says. “They can speak authentically to who they are. And that will get them as far as they want to go.”
The shoe’s see-through sole contains a picture of a painting from a canvas that Ajanaku had commissioned from an artist from Brazil. “We put [the painting] on sale on our site. It’s limited, just like the shoes,” he says. “But the canvas just spoke, it’s the actual logo playing golf. He has the 4s on, too. See that he has on jeans and a sweatshirt and literally a chain, just saying F it, I’m going to be myself in front of the cameras and in front of the next generation, in front of anybody who’s looking. And there’s power in that. So that’s the message that I did want to get across.”
The impact of the situation isn’t lost on Cooper, either. He realizes that something bigger is at play with this project and with the sport he loves.
“When you think about just the sport of golf and traditionally where it’s typically been this older white male sport,” he says. “And now you have a brand like Jordan that’s believing, taking a chance and saying we’re going to put a golfer on our shoe. Everyone was going crazy over these things. It’s just dope that, for us as being true authentic golfers, we’ve always wanted this moment, per se. We’ve always wanted to say: How do we have golf intersect with the culture and sneaker world and hip-hop? And it’s finally happening right now. So it’s just dope to be a part of that conversation.”
The golf shoe releases on August 7 and will retail for $275 on the brand’s website. Off the record, they both said that some big names have asked for the shoes so far. Let your imagination run wild with that. But Cooper said he needs to get Biden a pair. The guys also think they can get Tiger Woods’s son, Charlie, in a pair.
The looming success of the release and the gravity of the situation—between the big-name co-signs and what the shoes could mean for the sport—have started to sink in with Cooper.
“In the category of golf shoes, these are probably the best golf shoes that’s come out in the last few years,” he says. “But just to even have it in the conversation of just dope shoes in general, it’s what golfers have always wanted.”