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Fri, 04.08.1870

Black History in Golf, a story

*With the week of the Masters' Golf Tournament underway, Black history in American golf is remembered on this date. Beginning with Reconstruction, African Americans and golf have a rich history.  Golf history also shows that Dr. George F. Grant of Boston invented the wooden golf tee in 1899 and had the good sense to take out a patent on it. Grant never marketed his invention and never earned a penny from his intellect. The basic model of his golf tee is still used today.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the name Tiger Woods is recognizable, and rightfully so. He is today’s main man of golf worldwide, and he’s Black. Yet nearly 150 years ago, in the late 1800s, Black golfers played the game very well after the American Civil War.   The United Golfers Association (UGA) was a group of African American professional golfers who operated a separate series of professional golf tournaments for Blacks amid racial segregation in the United States.  It was said to have started in 1925 when George Adams became a founding member and in 1926 by Robert Hawkins, a golfer from Massachusetts.

Some, like Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder, went on to stellar careers and became well-known. But many others, such as Teddy Rhodes, James Black, Bill Spiller, Nathaniel Starks, and Joe Roach, never got that opportunity.  In those days, the Professional Golf Association of America (PGA) fought hard and, until 1961, successfully maintained its all-white status. Black golfers (then) created their organization of touring professionals, even if it meant playing in less than comparable settings. Tampa, Florida was one stop on their tour; Miami was another. The Miami competition, called the North-South Tournament, was played in Miami Springs and was considered one of the best organized on the circuit.

John M. Shippen Jr., an African American laborer who helped construct New York's Shinnecock Hills course, managed in 1896 to enter and play in the Second U.S. Open Championship, which was held at the Shinnecock Hills. Shippen finished in fifth place, seven strokes off the winning pace.  African Americans' involvement in golf has included some who held administrative positions and others, like Joe Bartholomew of New Orleans, who built courses themselves. Bartholomew's white friends were so impressed with his skills as a greenskeeper that they sponsored him in architect school in New York, yet the New Orleans society refused to allow Bartholomew to play on the very course that he designed.

Other histories of Black golfers range from the sheer anger (over racism) of Bill Spiller to the non-confrontational Teddy Rhodes, arguably the best Black golfer ever, before Tiger Woods. Spiller, a supremely talented golfer from California, refused to accept the “go-along-to-get-along” style many Blacks used to survive white hostility and racist laws. On the other hand, Rhodes preferred to let his clubs speak for him. On a later summer day in 1925, a group of African Americans interested in solidarity for minority golfers met in the 12th Street Branch of Washington (D.C.) YMCA.

The official press release defined their purpose: "The object of the national organization is to gather all colored golfers and golf associations into one body." The Colored Golfers Association of America or the United States Colored Golfers Association (the original name has been disputed over the years) was born from that meeting. To launch their new organization, the UGA sponsored the first National Colored Golf Championship at the Shady Rest Golf Club in Westfield, N.J., over the Fourth of July weekend of that year. A large gallery was treated to a final-round duel between an aging Shippen, still competitive well into his 50s, and a youngster named Harry Jackson. Jackson had posted a 72-hole 299 to beat Shippen by three shots and earn the youngster $25 and instant fame.

The UGA was off and running. On Labor Day weekend, 1926, professional golfers from all over the country gathered at the Mapledale Country Club in Stow, Massachusetts, to compete for a national title. The purse was $100 for the champion, and the course was a simple nine-hole layout. As it came to be known, the National quickly established itself as the major event for African American golfers. The tournament was a proving ground for gifted minorities and a place where Black golfers came together in a show of strength and harmony in a segregated America.

Many Blacks had learned the game of golf as caddies. It was the only way they could play on private and public courses. Estimates show fewer than 5,000 golf facilities in the United States in 1939; fewer than 20 were open to Black players. The nation celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1976 at Torrey Pines in San Diego. Segregation had long since ended, but tournament director Tim Thomas remembers arriving at Torrey Pines and being told that the tournament would have to be canceled because the course couldn't accommodate many players.

Women participated in the history of the game too.  Over time, stars like Marie Thompson, Lucy Williams, Geneva Wilson, Ann Gregory, Thelma Cowans, Ethel (Powers) Funches, Althea Gibson, and Renee Powell played.  In 1939 the Wake-Robin Golf Club started its first president Helen Webb Harris.

The Tourney went on without a problem, and everyone who played thought the 1976 event was one of the last. The UGA didn't have enough money to run another professional competition, and by the mid-1980s, with UGA membership on the decline, the National just faded away. Once Black golfers had access to courses, once the PGA opened its tournaments, the need for separate events became a thing of the past. With the assent of Tiger Woods and his golf game comes an increased interest and participation from young minorities in the game. He envisions this impacting in the next ten years as they come of age and develop physically.

To become a Professional Athlete.


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