Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

African Americans have impacted golf

By Mary Armstrong

Published in the Las Cruces Sun News 02/25/11

Most everyone knows that February is African – American history month, but few of my fellow golfers realize what a significant role African American golfers have played in the American golf scene.

While researching this article, I came across a multitude of websites dedicated to African – American golfers.  National organizations such as the United States African – American Golf Association (USAAGA), United Golf Association (UGA), and the United States Black Golfer’s Association (USBGA, support the growth of the game for everyone. 

Earlier this month, the USGA and PGA jointly announced that they will create a “centralized repository for artifacts and documents related to the history of African Americans in golf, to be located at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.”  Along those lines, The Aesop Robinson Golf Association (ARGA) website contains a concise listing of significant people and events involving African-Americans.  I would imagine the USGA/PGA task force will research these events and more for their collection:

  • John Shippen became the first black to play in the U.S. Open in 1896.  He began the event’s second day tied for the lead, but succumbed to a disastrous 11 on the 13th hole at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.
  • In 1899, George Grant developed the golf tee.  He received a patent, but the prominent Boston Dentist did not market it.  He therefore was not credited for the invention.
  • George Adams became a founding member of the United Golf Association in 1925.  The UGA primarily provided a series of golf tournaments for African – Americans at a time when they were prevented from playing with whites.
  • Joseph Bartholomew designed and supervised construction of a number of golf courses – many of which he was prevented from playing.  The John Bartholomew Golf Course is a New Orleans municipal layout that Bartholomew designed.  Renovations, required by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina are nearing completion.
  • Ann Gregory was the first African – American woman to compete in a USGA championship when she played in the 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur.  She was known as the “Queen of Negro Golf”.
  • Althea Gibson was not only the first African – American Woman to play on the LPGA, but was probably best known for her play on the world tennis tour.  Gibson was also the first black woman to play on the world tennis tour and the first to win a Grand Slam title in 1956.  After retireing from tennis, Gibson seriously developed her golf game.  Although she was much older than most of the other competitors, she joined the LPGA tour in 1964.  Her best showing was a tie for second after a three-way playoff for the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open at the age of 43. 
  • It took Charlie Sifford nine years to desegregate the PGA tour.  In 1952 he used an invitation obtained by Joe Louis to play in the Phoenix Open.  Although he was subject to threats and racial remarks, Sifford would not be deterred.  In 1957 he won the Long Beach Open.  It wasn’t a full PGA event (only co-sponsored), but there were several well-known white players there.  Finally, in 1961 he was granted full membership on the PGA tour.
  • Lee Elder is probably best known as the first African-American player at the Masters in 1975.  Elder had a difficult childhood which included the loss of his father in World War II and his mother only a few months later.  It seems that golf may have saved him as a young man as he caddied and played occasionally when he could.  After being discharged from the Army in 1961, he joined the United Golf Association Tour.  At one stretch he won 18 of 22 consecutive events, but probably didn’t win more than $10,000 dollars in total.  In 1967 he raised the money to participate in the tour qualifying school.  He finished 9th out of 122 players and was awarded his tour card.  Lee’s wife, Rose Harper, was an accomplished player on the women’s UGA circuit herself.  She is also a member of the USGA/PGA task force mentioned above. 
  • Clyde Martin was a very good player that you probably haven’t heard of.  As with many professionals, Martin began his career caddying.  In the 20’s he caddied at the Congressional Country Club.  Caddying allowed him to play occasionally.  Eventually, the Club’s renowned PGA professional Tommy Armour noticed Martin’s skill and began to arrange matches for him against visitors looking for a cash game.  He rarely lost, but was never afforded the opportunity to play in national competition.  In 1939, Clyde Martin was named club professional at the newly created (and segregated) Langston Golf Course in Washington, D.C.
  • Carl Jackson caddied in his 49th Masters Tournament in 2010.  His goal is to caddie in 50 Masters.  He will accomplish this goal this year when he carries Ben Crenshaw’s bag.  Crenshaw has employed Jackson in 34 Masters Events including his two wins in 1984 and 1995.
  • When Bill Powell was denied access to public golf courses in 1946 after returning from serving in the armed forces, he decided not to fight ‘em, but to join ‘em.  With the financial backing of two black physicians and his brother, he bought a 78 acre dairy farm in East Canton, Ohio.  After doing much of the work himself with his wife’s assistance, the 9 hole course opened in 1948.  Clearview Golf Club was the first golf course developed by an African – American, but Powell welcomed players of all races.  Eventually Powell expanded to 18 in 1978 and then in 2001 the property was designated a national historic site.  Bill Powell died about a year ago at the age of 93.  His daughter Renee Powell is also on the USGA/PGA task force mentioned above.

In 2011 there are only five professional golfers of African American ancestry participating in the various US tours:

  • Shasta Averyhardt (LPGA Tour)
  • Joseph Bramlett and Tiger Woods (PGA Tour)
  • Jim Dent and Jim Thorpe (Champions Tour).

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010.  She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects.  You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog: https://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.

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