African Americans and golf, a brief history


L. Reid, B. Spiller,
T. Rhodes, & J. Louis
Date: 
Fri, 1870-04-08

*With the week of the Masters Golf Tournament underway, African American history in American golf is remembered on this date. Beginning with Reconstruction, African Americans and golf have a long, rich history.

This century, the name Tiger Woods is a recognizable as the president of the United States and rightfully so. He is today’s main man of golf worldwide and he’s Black. Yet nearly 150 years ago, in the late 1800’s after the Civil War, Black golfers played the game and played it very well. Under the racist policy of America’s lynching, financial oppression, and other acts of hatred, Black men carried their golf game on. 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 own 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.

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. John M. Shippen Jr., an African-American laborer who helped in the construction of New York's Shinnecock Hills course, managed in 1896 to enter and play in the Second U.S. Open Championship, which was held at 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 John Bartholomew of New Orleans, who built courses themselves. Bartholomew's white friends were so impressed with his skills as a greens keeper 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, prior to Tiger Woods. Spiller, a supremely talented golfer from California, refused to accept the “go-along-to-get-along” style that many Blacks used to survive white hostility and racist laws. Rhodes, on the other hand, 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 the Washington (D.C.) YMCA.

The official press release defined their purpose simply: "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. The National, as it came to be known, 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 virtually the only way they could play on private and public courses. Estimates show that of the more than 5,000 golf facilities in the United States in 1939, fewer than 20 were open to Black players. The National 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 cancelled because the course couldn't accommodate so many players.

The Tourney went on without a problem and everyone played thought that 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 himself envisions this impacting in the next ten years as they come of age and develop physically as well.

Reference:
The First Tee Off,
Langston Golf Course
by Linwood E. Barnes

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