Rodney McN. “Binx” Watts, who abandoned a legal career to become a professional golfer and a golf director, died Aug. 7 of COVID-19 at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton. The Cheltenham resident was 75.
“Binx felt bad, had no energy, wasn’t eating and we didn’t like the sound of his cough,” said a sister, Bobette Watts-Hitchcock of Upper Park Heights. “We suggested he go to the hospital, and he walked to the ambulance. I think he was diagnosed either July 30 or 31.”
Mr. Watts was in MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital for eight days, Ms. Watts-Hitchcock said.
“When he went in, they put him in the ICU and on oxygen. He was texting and taking pictures,” his sister said. “Then they had to incubate him and the last few days he was stable."
A dreaded phone call came early in the morning.
“It was 1 a.m., and they said he was crashing,” Ms. Watts-Hitchcock recalled. “The doctor went in and put his cellphone to Binx’s ear so we could say that we loved him and say goodbye. It was just me and Tina, his fiancee, on the phone. Everything was happening so fast and not being with your loved one is just awful, and the hospital staff knows how families feel.”
The end came quickly.
“The doctor got back on the phone and said, ’He’s gone,’ ” she said.
Rodney McNair Watts, son of Baltimore City Circuit Judge Robert B. Watts and his wife, Evelyn Jacquelyn “Jackie” Johnson Watts, a Social Security Administration statistician, was born at Fort McPherson in Atlanta when his father was serving in the Army.
Mr. Watts was raised in the city’s Ashburton neighborhood and was a graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes parochial school. In 1963 he graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School, where he had begun playing golf at 14 and developed a lifelong passion.
“Binx was the first Black to go to Mount St. Joe,” said Michael P. Scott, a lifelong friend who lives in Ashburton.
When Mr. Watts was a senior at Mount St. Joseph he felt at first hand the sting of segregation when he was refused membership in the Baltimore Junior Golf Association and his membership fee was returned.
“The association has no objections to Negroes belonging,” Robert H. Swindell, executive secretary of the association, told The Baltimore Sun in a 1962 interview. “But some of the courses where we play would not permit Negroes to play. I feel we’d be taking his money under false pretenses. The only place we could play with a Negro in the association would be Pine Ridge.”
“Binx began to cut his path by joining the golf team at Mount St. Joe where he would make news using his amateur status to challenge segregation rules in local private clubs,” Steve Ragsdale, a Columbia resident, wrote in an email “In his senior year, Binx would captain his collegiate team at Morgan to its first Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association golf championship in 1967. That team included other golf legends like Tim McCready and Al Wilson who have all been lifelong friends and ambassadors to a game that took two lawsuits, 1942 and 1948, to desegregate in Baltimore City. "
He attended what is now Morgan State University on a golf scholarship and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1967. While at Morgan, he joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was arrested while participating in a demonstration at the segregated Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.
Mr. Watts earned his law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law and became a member of the Maryland Bar in 1970, and the California Bar four years later.
Mr. Watts who began his legal career in the State’s Attorney’s Office as an assistant state’s attorney for Milton B. Allen, later practiced civil litigation, corporate law, entertainment law and management and defense litigation.
“Binx’s love of golf and singing led him to journey cross country to San Francisco’s warmer climate,” his sister wrote in a biographical profile of her brother. “He enjoyed singing in various nightclubs and continued to do after moving to Los Angeles.”
“He was a tenor and liked singing Frank Sinatra songs,” Ms. Watts-Hitchcock said in a telephone interview. “Sinatra’s ’My Way’ was one of Binx’s signature songs.”
While living in Los Angeles, Mr. Watts was vice president and general counsel to One Hour Photo and general and defense counsel for several insurance companies.
In 1983, he married the former Gail Coleman, and after the marriage ended in divorce in 1992, he returned to Baltimore and changed careers, becoming assistant professional at Pine Ridge Golf Course in Lutherville, a position he held until 1999, when he was named head pro at the Marlton Golf Club in Upper Marlboro, a position he held until 2002. He was most recently director of golf at The Timbers at Troy Golf Course in Elkridge.
A professional golfer since 1995, Mr. Watts traveled the country while playing in the PGA Senior Tour, Senior Series Tour and Golden State Tour events.
It was Mr. Watts who envisioned the project in the mid-1990s and later led the effort in 2004 with community activist Bev Thomas that transformed Lucille Park in Park Heights, with the assistance from the nonprofit Park Heights Community Golf Range, into a family sports complex and golf range.
“It can make kids into better potential citizens because of self-discipline, Mr. Watts told The Sun at the time. “It’s a game of honesty and integrity. We want kids to learn about the careers that surround the golf experience.”
“Beyond being competitive, he knew that the golf course was a space for bonding experiences and also a big green confessional and comedy stage ... subtle wry as much as biting,” Mr. Scott wrote in an email.
“The key to understanding Rodney’s personality was where he came from. His father was an early Black jurist in the 1950s, and Binx touched respectively his father’s life,” Mr. Scott said in a telephone interview.
“He reflected his father and he had a good rich life. He wore access as a duty and he had the power and ability to influence people,” he said.
Marc Steiner, the Baltimore radio host, was a close friend of Mr. Watts since they were 14.
“He had a great exuberance for life and was really smart,” said Mr. Steiner, a Sparks resident. “He inherited his father’s qualities of humor and passion for his fellow human beings. Binx didn’t have a mean bone in his body and lived life they way he wanted to live. His death is a devastating loss for all who loved him.”
“He was a wise man who was not hardened by the cynicism of the many things he’d seen, but rather rendered him even more understanding, more compassionate, more empathetic and more humorous,” Mr. Scott wrote.
“And so wise ... even as he raised a whole lotta hell ... and got into a whole lotta good trouble,” he wrote. “I will miss our laughs and his guidance with a wink and a grin.
In 2004, Mr. Watts and his Morgan golf buddies were inducted the Morgan State University M Club Hall of Fame.
In addition to singing and dancing, Mr. Watts liked vacationing with his family in Cape May, New Jersey.
Because of the pandemic, plans for a virtual service are incomplete.
In addition to his sister, Mr. Watts is survived by his fiancee, Latina “Tina” Smith of Cheltenham; two other sisters, Jacquelyn “Jinx” Broady of Northwest Baltimore and Genelle Watts of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania; two nephews; and several great-nieces and great-nephews.