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During the first half of the 20th century, there weren’t many African Americans playing golf, let alone many who owned golf courses. The first was the duo of George Adams and Helen Webb Harris, who founded two important golf clubs in Washington, D.C: the Royal Golf Club and Wake-Robin Golf Club, respectively.
These two public courses led the fight to desegregate D.C.’s public golf courses, which succeeded in 1941. Adams was among the co-founders of the United Golf Association, started as the alternative to the then-segregated PGA.
The other groundbreaking (literally) pioneers were father and daughter Bill Powell and Renee Powell. Businessman Bill Powell was the first African American to build, own and operate a golf course in the United States: Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio, which opened in 1948.
Renee Powell was the second black woman to gain LPGA membership; the first was former tennis pioneer and great Althea Gibson. The Powells were awarded the Jack Nicklaus Golf Family Award by the National Foundation in 1992. Both are in the PGA of America Hall of Fame.
Ann Gregory was a frequent United Golf Association tournament champion. In 1956, she became the first African American woman to play in a USGA championship at the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Despite her success, she faced blatant discrimination throughout her career. In 1959, after the U. S. Women’s Amateur, the Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C. refused to allow Gregory in its clubhouse for the players’ dinner. Gregory was runner-up in the 1971 USGA Senior Women’s Amateur, and one year before her death, she won the 1989 U.S. National Senior Olympics golf tournament by 44 strokes.
George Franklin Grant, a dentist, was the first African American faculty member at Harvard University. He is also the inventor of the modern golf tee, patented Dec. 12, 1899.
One of the most interesting African American golfers of the past is Jim Thorpe, who was born in Roxboro, North Carolina, the ninth of 12 children of a golf course superintendent. He attended Morgan State University before turning pro in 1972. Golfing insiders call him “Thorpey.” He often wore a Tam O’Shanter golf cap, reminiscence of Ben Hogan, Payne Stewart and, nowadays, Bryson DeChambeau.
In June column on www.golf.com, longtime golf writer Michael Bamberger started with the this, “If Jim Thorpe isn’t the most popular man in golf, he’s in the conversation.” But not according to the feds, who charged him with failure to pay $1.6 million in taxes from 2002 and 2004. On Jan. 22, 2010, Thorpe was sentenced to a year in prison for tax evasion.
Thorpe won three times on the PGA Tour: the 1985 Greater Milwaukee Open and the 1985 and 1986 Seiko-Tucson Match Play Championship. At age 50, he moved to the Senior PGA Tour, now called the PGA Tour Champions. During the next seven years, Thorpe won 13 tournaments.
The very first African American man to ever design and build a golf course was Joseph Bartholomew. He was a kid caddie in Louisiana, but he learned about golf course architecture in New York. His first construction project was for the Metairie Golf Club in New Orleans. But he was barred from playing there because of segregation.
Bartholomew designed and built several other courses across Louisiana and was the first African American inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame. A book worth reading is “Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African Americans in Golf” by Pete McDaniel.
This just in: The PGA has just renamed the Horton Smith Award the “PGA Professional Development Award.”
Smith was a two-time Masters Champion (1934 and 1936) and PGA president 1952-54. Too bad that he was a staunch defender of the “Caucasian only” clause which remained in PGA bylaws until 1961.
Dr. Charlie Blanchard is a licensed psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact Blanchard at email@example.com.