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‘Without golf art, I’d be in jail’: the remarkable story of Valentino Dixon | Ewan Murray

‘Without golf art, I’d be in jail’: the remarkable story of Valentino Dixon

Wrongly convicted of murder, the artist has sold one of his paintings to Michelle Obama since his conviction was quashed

A mere five-minute stroll from Augusta National lives a man with a more extraordinary backstory than anybody who will tee off in the upcoming Masters. Golf was largely responsible for restoring Valentino Dixon’s freedom, which in itself is poetic given his upbringing in the streets of East Side Buffalo.

“I had never set foot on a golf course before I went to prison,” Dixon explains. “I have played about 20 times now.

“Golf meant absolutely nothing to me. I grew up in a tough, inner‑city neighbourhood where it was just football and basketball. Golf was for white privileged people; at least I thought it was. It had nothing to do with a poor black kid, growing up in a drug-infested neighbourhood. I was never in a gang or anything like that but a lot of my friends got killed when I was younger.”

Dixon has rubbed shoulders with Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. He has sold artwork to Michelle Obama. Yet for 27 years – he received a life sentence – Dixon was imprisoned for a shooting he was not responsible for. The delivery of justice arrived only after Dixon’s astonishing knack for reproducing golf holes on canvas received widespread publicity. He walked free in 2018, after the confession of another man – made two days after the 1991 shooting – was so belatedly accepted.

For the first seven years of his internment and despite earlier being such a promising art student Dixon did not draw a thing. His passion was refuelled by a delivery of supplies from an uncle. “He told me if I could reclaim my talent, I could reclaim my life,” says Dixon. “I started to draw again. My uncle said I may have to draw myself out of prison. That made me say to myself: ‘If I become one of the greatest artists who has ever lived, that has to get me some attention and has to get me my freedom.’ I was drawing for up to 10 hours every day for the next 20 years.

“Had I not been drawing every day, a warden would never have known me or asked me to draw the golf hole.”

Tiger Woods celebrates winning the Masters in 2019.

The 12th at Augusta National. No ordinary golf hole. Golden Bell. “I was like: ‘Golf? I don’t know anything about golf. I’ll draw it but please, give me a break here,’” Dixon recalls. “My neighbour said I should draw more golf holes and I said: ‘Hell, no!’ He tossed some Golf Digest magazines on my bed. I started drawing courses every day and once I started I couldn’t stop.”

With this came the attention which accelerated Dixon’s bid for freedom. His voice started to be heard and the errors attached to his original trial came to light. So what was it about the appearance of golf venues that captured Dixon’s imagination from inside a cell? “Twice a year, when we were kids, our father would take us fishing. That was the only time I had real peace, those fishing trips. The golf courses reminded me of that.”

Dixon has received a medal from the Vatican. Nicklaus compared Dixon’s spirit to that of Nelson Mandela. Obama bought an item as a gift to her husband, Barack, after noting the artist’s tale on a US television show. “Everybody wants golf art,” he says. “I have some amazing art work but everyone wants golf art. I think that’s all connected to the story. Golf art got me out of prison. Without golf art, I’d still be sitting in jail right now.”

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Dixon met Woods shortly before the golfing icon won his 15th major, the Masters of 2019. “He knew my story,” says Dixon. “We chatted for five minutes. I told him he would win the Masters. He said: ‘I’ll try.’ I said: ‘No, you are going to win the Masters.’ He looked at his manager and said: ‘I like this guy.’” Woods’s victory reverberated way beyond golf.

Dixon now has a golf apparel range for sale alongside his artwork and greetings cards. He helps prisoners in their attempts to overturn injustice (“If I can get out of the situation I was in …”) and speaks in youth centres in the hope of advising teenagers to take the correct path in life. Dixon, now 53, has visited most of the iconic golf courses in the US. He was a guest, too, when the DP World Tour made a recent stop in Dubai. It seems impossible that this could ever compensate for being robbed of almost three decades of his life but Dixon is an upbeat, infectious character.

“I was never consumed by anger; that is not in my nature,” he says. “I was upset with the people who did this to me but I was around people who were angry all the time. I wasn’t like that. I could still smile, laugh, joke. I didn’t allow what was going on with me to change me. I believe in taking obstacles and using them as motivation. Where is bitterness and anger going to get me? I would only be a miserable person.”

In a month’s time the most famous names in golf will roll into Augusta in preparation for the first major of 2023. Close by will be an individual whose attitude and talent levels should draw admiring glances from those competing on golf’s hallowed turf. “I always thought outside the box as an artist,” says Dixon. “I always had big dreams for myself.” He got there in the end, following the most unimaginable of journeys.

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