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Golf's ugly legacy; America's fairways have been anything but fair to black golfers. Yet African-Americans can point proudly to their contributions to the game.


IN THE APRIL 15, 1984, issue of the New York Times, a free-lance writer named Michael Dixon wrote an account of a painful experience he had as an African-American playing golf.

The article ran under the headline "On Being Black and Loving Golf," and it describes a 1979 incident at Winged Foot Country Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which introduced Dixon to golf's racial animus. A few months before the incident, Dixon had played the course on the United States Golf Association's Media Day for the 1980 U.S. Senior Open, and he'd had an enjoyable time. Much to his surprise, though, when he attempted to play in a Golf magazine outing at Winged Foot later that year, he was told by one of the magazine's senior editors that "someone had a problem" with his previous presence on the course. The editor didn't provide details about who had the problem or what caused it, but the message was clear: The editor didn't want him to play. Realizing that he was not welcome, Dixon withdrew.

Dixon was stung again when one of his friends, a new member of Philadelphia's prestigious Merion Golf Club, was told to "forget it" when he inquired about inviting Dixon to play there. "I wasn't going down to Merion to stage a demonstration, challenge their membership rules or marry the club president's daughter," Dixon explained. "I just wanted to play a golf course I'd heard and read and dreamed about. And I couldn't. Because I'm black."

Dixon's words resonate within me. They bring back a hurtful, golf-related incident that happened to me a number of years ago.

One spring in the late 1950s, I went with a group of friends to Grossinger's Hotel in the Catskill Mountains for a weekend of golf. We had planned the event since early winter, and, as the date approached, we looked forward with eagerness to our first outing of the year. We were all professional people who had no illusions about breaking par, we simply hoped the trip would usher in a new season of golf, our passion.

We did not arrive at the resort until late Friday afternoon. We had hoped to play nine holes before nightfall, but our late arrival prevented us from playing that afternoon. By the time we checked into our rooms on the hotel's top floor and got settled, it was time to get ready for dinner. After shaving, showering and changing into dinner attire, we met at the bank of elevators on our floor. The four of us got into a car heading down to the dining room. Two floors down, the elevator stopped.

When the doors opened, two elderly white women stepped in. Visibly taken aback to find themselves in close quarters with a group of black men, each woman gave a short, soft but distinctly audible gasp. Their eyes darted about, and their lips quivered as they tried to maintain their composure. The elevator doors closed, and the car renewed its descent. At this point, the more intrepid of the two looked at us with a tentative smile and asked, "Do you boys play in the band?"

We were perplexed, angry and disgusted. Though we were well-groomed, well-behaved and fairly prosperous-looking, it was all lost on the two women. Skin color was the sole measurement they used to conclude that we were musicians. Once again, blind, irrational, racial stereotyping was the order of the day. It was one hell of a way to start a weekend of golf.

Yet, my experience at Grossinger's pales in comparison to the crude indignities suffered on golf courses over they years by Charlie Sifford, Ann Gregory, Bill Spiller, Renee Powell and countless other African-Americans.

Nevertheless, despite the grudging and agonizingly slow pace of improvement in the attitude of the dominant culture, one cannot deny that favorable changes have taken place. With each year, the situation for African-American golfers has become more hopeful. Another milestone was reached in the waning days of the 1996 summer season with the arrival of Tiger Woods. His presence has the potential to drive another mighty nail into racial prejudice's coffin. Its burial is long overdue.

Not long after I began the research for my book "Forbidden Fairways," it became clear to me that a serious study of black golf history had never been written. I learned this after visiting the Library of Congress, which has 1,900 golf-related books. Short references to African-American participation in golf are mentioned in many books, but only two examined the subject in a less than cursory fashion.

In 1988, the late tennis champion Arthur Ashe published "A Hard Road to Glory." Ashe's three-volume work covers the participation of black athletes in many sports. Only five pages in the first volume, however, and 11 pages in the third are dedicated to golf.

The other book, published in 1993, is "Just Let Me Play," an autobiographical treatment of the career of golfer Charlie Sifford. Valuable as both books are, neither was intended to provide a detailed examination of African-American golf history. This meant that I had to look for a source of information other than books. Fortunately, I found one.

Until a generation ago, mainstream white newspapers seldom published substantive reports about developments in the African-American community. Without the black press, I would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to trace much of the history of blacks and golf. Not only did black newspapers report the story, but their reportage helped me put it in perspective to our nation's history of race relations.

Here are some profiles on African-Americans who ventured onto the nation's forbidden fairways long before the arrival of Tiger Woods:

George Grant

It is not known when this black Boston dentist began playing golf, but his daughter, Frances, recalled caddying for him in the mid-1880s. A nearby meadow served as the golf course. At that time, the Grant family was living in Arlington Heights, a Boston suburb. Many of Grant's patients suffered from cleft palate, a defect in the roof of the mouth that made it difficult for them to eat and speak. Using his considerable manual dexterity, Grant fashioned individually-fitted artificial palates for his patients.

By 1890, after encountering racial discrimination in the housing market, Grant managed to buy a house in the Beacon Hill district. But he continued to keep the Arlington Heights property, where he often played golf with three friends: Archibald Grimke, a civil rights leader, journalist and lawyer; Butler Wilson, an 1884 Boston Law School graduate; and Howard Lee, a well-known Boston restaurateur.

During this era, primitive golf courses were commonplace. If it was difficult for the average middle- or working-class white golfer to find a suitable course to play on, it was immeasurably more difficult for the African-American golfer, regardless of income, education or class. Grant and his playing companions were fortunate to have access to the Arlington Heights meadowland.

During the late 19th century, golfers used small mounds of damp sand to create tees. They shaped the sand with their fingers and placed the ball on top. Grant was annoyed at having to do this at every tee box (literally, a box full of sand next to the teeing area), so he decided to fashion a wooden peg to support the ball.

On December 12, 1899, the United States Patent Office issued patent number 638,920 to Grant for his invention, the first golf tee registered by the office. Grant had tees manufactured by a small shop in Arlington Heights and kept bags of them at both of his houses. He often handed them out to friends but never marketed his invention for commercial gain.

Twenty-five years after Grant's tee was patented, Dr. William Lowell, a white golfer from New Jersey, also a dentist, got a patent for a golf tee he invented. Unlike Grant, he set out to make money from it. He paid $1,500 to U.S. Open champion Walter Hagen and trick-shot artist Joe Kirkwood to promote his device. They helped popularize Lowell's tee, which became widely used. For many years, Lowell was considered the inventor of the tee, and Grant went unrecognized. Only through the persistence of Wornie L. Reed, an African-American faculty member of the University of Massachusetts, did the United States Golf Association acknowledge in 1991 that Grant deserved recognition for receiving the first patent.

John Matthew Shippen Jr.

John Shippen holds the distinction of being the first African-American to play in the U.S. Open.

Shippen made history in 1896 when he played in the Second U.S. Open Championship held by the U.S. Golf Association at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island. The day before the tournament began, a number of entrants, mostly English and Scottish professionals, confronted Theodore F. Havemeyer, the tournament director and the first USGA president, and threatened to withdraw if Shippen and Oscar Bunn, a Shinnecock Indian, were allowed to play.

Havemeyer told the protesters that the tournament would be played on schedule, even if Shippen and Bunn were the only contestants. Faced with Havemeyer's uncompromising stand, the protesters abandoned the walkout, and the tournament began the next morning.

In the first round of the two-day event, Shippen shot a 78, which placed him in a tie with four other players. The next day, Shippen played the first nine holes with steady precision. Midway through the back nine, disaster struck. On the 13th hole, his drive landed in a sandy waste on the right-hand side, and he took a horrendous 11 strokes on the hole. At the end of the tournament, Shippen was tied for fifth place with a combined score of 159 -- seven strokes behind James Foulis, the winner. For his efforts, Shippen collected $10.

Shippen's nightmarish performance on the 13th hole haunted him the rest of his life.

"It was a little, easy par four. I'd played it many times, and I knew I just had to stay on the right side of the fairway with my drive," Shippen explained in a 1973 magazine interview. "Well, I played it too far to the right, and the ball landed in a sand road. Bad trouble in those days before sand wedges. I kept hitting the ball along the road, unable to lift it out of the sand, and wound up with an unbelievable 11 for the hole. You know, I've wished a hundred times I could have played that little par four again. It sure would have been something to win that day."

Shippen was familiar with the Shinnecock Hills course because he caddied there. He and Bunn lived on the nearby Shinnecock Indian Reservation, where Shippen's father served as a Presbyterian minister. Shippen and Bunn learned the game under the watchful eye of Willie Dunn, a Scotsman who oversaw the construction of the course.

Shippen competed in four more U.S. Open tournaments (1899, 1900, 1902 and 1913). His best finish was in 1902 at Garden City, Long Island, where he again tied for fifth.

Joseph M. Bartholomew Sr.

"There's no such thing as 'get rich quick.' Take your time. Be honest, listen and learn." This quote, which appeared in a Nov. 1949 Fortune magazine interview, offers words of wisdom from Joe Bartholomew, one of the wealthiest black men in New Orleans.

Bartholomew was born in New Orleans on Aug. 1, 1881. He went as far as the eighth grade before striking out on his own at the age of 12. In his first job, working for a white family, he was expected to arrive at the house of his employer well before dawn to clean the pantry. Afterward, he caddied at the nearby Audubon Golf Course. He taught himself to play and soon became good enough to teach others. He showed an interest in maintaining the course and was put in charge of the greens.

Bartholomew devoted much of his time to golf, and he became so skillful that he competed in matches with the best golfers who played at Audubon. Bartholomew won many of these matches. He once toured the course in an amazing 62 strokes and faced greats such as Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen.

After Scotsman Freddie McLeod won the 1908 U.S. Open, he accepted the job as Audubon's club professional. Soon he and Bartholomew were battling it out in head-to-head matches. "I beat Mr. McLeod [sometimes] and he beat me [other times]," Bartholomew recalled. McLeod was so impressed with Bartholomew that he hired him as his assistant. While working for McLeod, Bartholomew also learned how to make clubs, a skill that earned him thousands of dollars.

In 1922, when officials of Metarie Golf Club on the outskirts of New Orleans decided to build a new 18-hole course, they asked Bartholomew to undertake the project. H.T. Cottam, a wealthy New Orleans businessman, persuaded the other club members to send Bartholomew to Long Island, where he worked with noted golf course architect Seth Raynor.

The site chosen for the new course was untouched wilderness, and some expressed doubt that a golf course could be built there. Bartholomew didn't pay attention to the naysayers. He cleared the land, often working at night to avoid the eyes of potential competitors. After a while, some club members questioned the pace of the project and called a meeting at which they grilled Bartholomew. The next day, they traveled by horse-drawn wagons to the site and were impressed with the work Bartholomew had quietly done. In fact, Bartholomew's severest critic was so pleased that he recommended an increase in the builder's salary.

Bartholomew remained at the Metarie course for a few years after it opened -- teaching, making golf clubs and giving advice. But, despite his contributions to the club's success, because of his skin color he was not allowed to play a single round of golf on the course he had built.

From Metarie, Bartholomew moved to the New Orleans Country Club to work as the greenskeeper. He was there only briefly before he was appointed to build what is now the City Park No. 1 course in New Orleans. By this time, he was recognized as one of the area's leading golf-course architects. During the next eight years, he built the City Park No. 2 and Pontchartrain Park courses. According to all accounts, Bartholomew neither sought nor received compensation for building the three New Orleans courses.

Bartholomew also built courses in the Louisiana cities of Hammond, Covington, Abita, Algiers Springs, Slidell and Baton Rouge, as well as one in Mississippi. In each case, it was a repeat of the absurd and demeaning Metarie experience. He could build the course, but he couldn't play on it.

He got so fed up with the prejudice that was preventing African-Americans from playing the game that he constructed a seven-hole course for blacks on land he owned in Harahan, La. It was separate, but even with his superb skills, he could not make it equal.

In the mid-1930s, Bartholomew formed a construction company, which received a major contract to repave Tulane Avenue. During World War II, his firm worked for one of the largest shipbuilders in the city, and after the war, it erected foundations for factories, office buildings and housing complexes. He played golf into his eighties, stopping only in the last two years of his life, when his health failed. He died on Oct. 12, 1971.

Clyde Martin

Out of the caddie ranks emerged some of the finest golfers the country has seen. The golfing exploits of such ex-caddies as Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson are well known.

Less known are the caddying careers of black golfers Charlie Sifford, Ted Rhodes and Lee Elder. Clyde Martin was another of those highly rated -- but seldom mentioned -- black golfers who began his career as a caddie. Born in southern Maryland, he began to caddie at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda during his pre-teen years. This was in the late 1920s when the renowned Tommy Armour held sway as the club's professional. Armour soon recognized Martin's golfing talents and began to pit the young caddie against visitors looking for betting action. Martin rarely lost in those head-to-head matches. But following the code of the day, he was never given an opportunity to play in national competition.

By 1939, however, his playing abilities were so well known in black golf circles that he was named the club professional at the newly opened (and segregated) Langston Golf Course in Washington, D.C. Within 18 months of the Langston appointment, world heavyweight champion Joe Lewis hired Martin as his personal coach. Martin remained with Louis until 1942, when Louis went into the army. After the war, Martin played regularly on the black golf circuit until his death in the early 1950s.

Ann Gregory

The middle child of five, Ann Moore was born to Myra and Henry Moore in Aberdeen, Miss., on July 25, 1912. When Ann was about 15, her father died. Her mother died shortly afterward, and the five children were parceled out among relatives. Ann lived briefly with an older married sister and her husband before taking a job as the live-in maid for the Sanders family of Aberdeen. With her engaging personality and responsible attitude, Ann soon endeared herself to the white family, who saw to it that she finished high school.

In 1930, Ann followed her married sister when she moved to Gary, Ind. Naturally athletic, Ann began playing tennis and won the city championship in 1937. The next year, she married Leroy Percy Gregory, a United States Steel worker who was an avid golfer. Ann Gregory became so annoyed with her husband's devotion to the game that she considered divorcing him. He served in the Navy during World War II, and while he was gone, Ann missed him so much, she learned how to play. When Leroy returned in 1945, he was surprised to learn that his wife had become an accomplished golfer.

In 1948, Ann and Leroy won their respective events in a tournament in Kankakee, Ill. During the three-day event, Ann defeated Lucy Mitchell, Cleo Ball and Geneva Wilson, all of whom were former champions in the United Golf Association, an organization created to promote golfing among blacks.

In July 1950, Chicago Defender golf writer Russ Cowans expressed disappointment at the small number of young black women golfers. He said Ann was in a group of older women who "have reached the zenith of their career and are on the way down the hill." Cowans was wrong. Not long after the piece appeared, she won the Sixth City Open in Cleveland. She went on to win the Midwest Amateur in early August and later equaled the women's course record at a Flint, Mich., tournament. Ann capped the 1950 season by defeating the highly respected Eoline Thornton to capture the women's title at the national UGA tournament in Washington, D.C.

During the next half-decade, Ann Gregory was such a dominant force in African-American women's golf that some of her competitors asked for handicaps. In 1956, she became the first African-American woman golfer to enter a USGA-sponsored event when she teed off in the U.S. Women's Amateur at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Ann maintained her mastery over other black women golfers. From all indications, she won more than 100 golfing events during a 20-year span. On some of these occasions, she played with guest celebrities such as Joe Louis, Althea Gibson and Jackie Robinson.

Even before venturing onto the national circuit in the early 1960s, Ann confronted bigoted officials at the Gleason Park public golf course in Gary. Until then, African-American golfers were confined to a nine-hole course, while white golfers enjoyed access to the 18-hole layout.

Demanding the right to play where she chose, Ann paid her fee and strode to the first tee of the larger course. She played the round without interference, and through her resolute action, the Gleason Park officials abandoned their racial double standard.

In 1959, Ann was denied entry into the player's banquet at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda at the conclusion of the U.S. Women's Amateur. In 1963, she was mistaken as the maid for another contestant at the Women's Amateur in Williamstown, Mass.

Ann Moore Gregory died on Feb. 5, 1990. A granite marker in her memory stands at the sixth hole of the South Gleason Park Golf Course in Gary.

Dr. Calvin H. Sinnette is emeritus professor of pediatrics at Howard University College of Medicine. He is an associate member of the National Minority Golf Scholarship Association. Dr. Sinnette provided all of the photographs for this article, except the one of John Shippen.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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