A Life of ‘You Can’t Make This Up’ Moments
TAMPA, Fla. – Adrian Stills’ life has been made up of You Can’t Make This Up moments.
Moments that can’t be explained or rationalized, but that have led to some truly remarkable things. Like getting a full-ride golf scholarship to college. Or getting his first start on the PGA Tour. Or founding and growing the Advocates Professional Golf Association.
Stills is a member of the Florida State Golf Association Advisory Board and the Parks & Recreation Director for the city of Pensacola. A former member of the PGA Tour, he spent 20 years as the Director of Golf at Osceola Golf Course, the course where he first picked up the game.
He was the founding executive director of the Northwest Florida Chapter of the First Tee. Stills also is the co-founder of the Advocates Professional Golf Association, a non-profit organization with the mission to bring greater diversity to the game of golf.
Born in Pensacola, Florida, Stills is the youngest of five kids. He was first introduced to the game of golf when he was eight years old. It all started at Osceola Golf Course, a municipal golf course in Pensacola.
“Our dad took us to the municipal golf course because he said we can’t get into trouble out there,” Stills, now 65 years old, said.
His dad, who was in the Navy and stationed at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, had caddied out at Pensacola County Club when he was young but hadn’t had much exposure to the game until he introduced his sons to the game.
Stills and his brother started chipping and putting out at the course and soon the Stills brothers began excelling at the game. He had a lot of success as a junior golfer, winning every event he played in from the ages of eight to 10.
Despite his talent for the game, it was never lost on Stills and his brother were the only minority kids playing at Osceola, a course that had opened up play to minorities in 1957 – the year Stills was born. He went to an all-black Catholic school, but all his friends out at the golf course were white. Just kids playing golf, they became pals and still remain friends to this day.
“Things started to hit me though,” Stills said. “I got an understanding of how far we had to go to change.”
He was kept out of some events as a junior golfer and this proved to be a reality check for him. But Stills had a special set of parents that instilled in him from the young age that you base somebody off the relationship you have with them, not what they look like.
“My dad told me if someone has an issue with you, well that’s their problem,” Stills said.
So, he let these setbacks motivate him to work harder and he trusted that things would work out. And while Stills may not have gotten the oppurtunity to play in some of the events as a junior, his sons got the opportunity to compete more than 30 years later.
When Stills was in seventh grade, he had one of those You Can’t Make This Up moments. The head golf coach from South Carolina State University came down to Florida to recruit his brother and some other players to start a golf team. Stills went out to play with the coach, his brother and another recruit. They played nine holes – Stills hit two greens and shot even par.
The coach came back to their house and offered his brother a four-year scholarship to South Carolina State. Then he turned to Stills and said, ‘You just need to get out of high school. You’re set, you’ve got a full ride to South Carolina State too.’
“My dad just started crying,” Stills said. “Because that was the only way that we were going to get to college.”
The time came and Stills made his way up to Orangeburg, South Carolina with a four-year golf scholarship to South Carolina State University. The golf program at SCSU really started to take off when he got there with a president and golf coach that were so passionate about the game. When Stills was a junior, the team made their way to Scotland, where the final two rounds of the tournament were played at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
“It was a long way from low-income housing in Pensacola,” Stills said with a laugh.
Stills ended his career at South Carolina State as a three-time NAIA All-American and made the move to Orlando, Florida to chase his dream of being a professional golfer. In his first attempt at Qualifying School, Stills played well enough to advance to the final stage. He called his brother on the way back to the hotel after the first round and it was then he realized the mistake he had made. Stills had signed for a 76 on the par-71 course when he actually shot 77.
“I told Roy, my brother, I can’t get out there this way,” Stills said. “Roy paused and said, ‘You’re right, we’re not like that.’”
It took Stills three more attempts, but he earned his PGA Tour card in 1985 in dramatic fashion. He finished in a six-way tie for the 46th spot at 4-over 434. Back then, the top 50 scorers after the 108-hole marathon earned cards, meaning Stills was headed for a 6-for-5 playoff.
“It was a dream come true,” Stills said. “I never thought I wouldn’t get in the PGA Tour. It wasn’t if, just when.”
Stills made 11 cuts in 23 starts on the PGA Tour that season and competed in the 86th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. The season was filled with a lot of those You Can’t Make This Up moments.
One was getting his first PGA Tour start at the Los Angeles Open. when players withdrew due to weather. His brother and sister who lived in California where able to see him live out his dream that week at Rivera Country Club.
Another moment came after losing his sponsor. Stills got into the Byron Nelson and was able to get into two Pro-Am events, after a player dropped out, prior to the tournament to pay his way. He went on to make his first cut on the Tour.
Stills lost his card after that season and didn’t regain it in four more attempts. But he was one of the last African-American golfers to reach the PGA Tour through PGA Tour Qualifying School before the qualifying process changed in 2013.
After losing his card, Stills began teaching at Grand Cypress Academy of Golf in Orlando and stayed there for more than 15 years. He didn’t plan to go back to Pensacola when he moved away. But when his father-in-law passed away and his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Stills and his family knew that they had to find a way back home to Pensacola.
Soon after moving back, the Director of Golf position became available at Osceola Golf Course and Stills headed back to the place he learned to play the game all those years ago.
“I had traveled a lot through this game of golf and here I was back at this little 6200-yard long, par-72 golf course with no driving range,” Stills said. “But it was just about building something and getting the kids engaged because I knew what this game had done for me.”
Stills served as the Director of Golf for 18 years until he was selected as the City of Pensacola Parks and Recreation Director in June 2022.
Moving back to the Panhandle brought another opportunity to Stills: the founding director of the Northwest Florida Chapter of the First Tee. This gave Stills the opportunity to give back to an unserved area of Pensacola and the community rallied behind him. Stills was able to use his connections from professional golf to help fundraise and soon Pensacola natives, Bubba Watson, Jerry Pate, along with others, began to get involved. He stayed in this role until 2009 when the chapter transitioned to a new director.
Another one of those You Can’t Make This Up moments came for Stills in helping the Advocates Professional Golf Association. In 2010, Stills’ brother-in-law invited him to teach a golf clinic in Las Vegas. It was there that he met Ken Bentley, a retired executive from Nestle Chocolate in Los Angeles.
While playing Bentley and Stills talked about how it had been more than 25 years since an African American had gotten on the PGA Tour through qualifying school and how the cost of pursuing the game was astronomical. The two men decided to do something about that and the idea of the APGA was formed.
The first event was held at Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, Florida. It was a two-day event for professionals. While the players were competing on Saturday, the APGA would bring in kids from the local First Tee and have a three-hour clinic with them, focusing on mentorship, health and golf. Then a winner was crowned on Sunday.
“It went over really great and the community got behind it,” Stills said. “We thought that we may have something here.”
Over the next five years, the APGA held five to seven events a year and then things began to take off. Bentley, who is a chairperson on the Farmers Insurance board, started making connections and a relationship with Farmers Insurance was born. Farmers Insurance began hosting the APGA Invitational in conjunction with the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, giving APGA players the opportunity to compete on the highest level.
Then Jeff Dailey, the CEO of Farmers Insurance, happened to hear the stories of two APGA players at Torrey Pines in 2020 and decided that he wanted his company to sponsor those two players.
“I have no explanation for it except its profound,” Stills said. “It’s someone looking out for us.”
Next, Billy Horschel saw the story of the APGA and wanted to host an event at TPC Sawgrass. He raised over $100,000 for the event. Then the partnership with the PGA Tour, allowing the APGA to play on TPC courses for their events. Then, Cisco donated $500,000 to the APGA and have recently partnered with the association.
The APGA has grown tremendously over the past 13 years, thanks in large part to the hard work of Stills and Bentley.
“It’s evolved to help and support the guys that have the talent and the work ethic,” Stills said. “Now, they have the resources to play our tour and other qualifiers.”
Those guys that have the talent and work ethic include his son. His two boys, Justin and Joey, both picked up the game of golf in Pensacola and it is something special that they can share with their father. Justin played professionally, but after a year chose to transition into the business world.
Joey is still out there chasing his dream and competing on the tour that his father helped found. He earned conditional status on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica and thanks to the exposure he received on the APGA, he can think about going over there to play.
Most recently, the APGA has announced the first winner of the newly-created Adrian Stills Award. The award is given annually to the APGA Tour player who best embodies the qualities of character, sportsmanship, courage and giving back to the game and community.
“It means a whole lot because I love the idea that every year somebody will be recognized in this light,” Stills said.
This honor awards a player a $25,000 bonus to support his golf career, as well as $10,000 to donate to the charity of his choice.
When thinking about what the APGA means to the game of golf, Stills remembers a time when he was talking with Bentley and Kurt Triplett about how only a small portion of these guys would go on to get their PGA Tour Card.
“I remember Kurt saying, ‘Maybe but they are going to go back to their communities think of what they will do for junior golf and spreading the game,’” Stills said. “And that’s what this is all about.”