As we celebrate the achievements of women during the annual Women’s History Month in March, we’d like to extend the timeframe of our Front Nine Series of Black Pioneers in Golf to acknowledge Renee Powell, Althea Gibson and Ann Gregory. Three of the most pivotal ladies to play the game.
To Renee’s father, William Powell, the game seemed to him like the perfect meritocracy. The golf ball didn’t know the color of your skin and the scorecard didn’t handicap you based on race. And with the help of a couple of investors, he would transform an old dairy farm in East Canton, Ohio into a public golf course known as the Clearview Golf Club open to everybody.
So as the daughter of the first African-American to design, build, own and operate a golf course in the United States, it was only natural that Renee would be introduced to the game very early.
By the age of three she was swinging a golf club, and by her early teens had already had won over 30 tournaments. After high school, Renee enrolled at Ohio University becoming captain of the women’s golf team and helped the golf coach teach classes. She then transferred to Ohio State and became a golf captain there.
In 1967, she became the second African-American woman to compete on the LPGA Tour. As a tour player, she competed in more than 250 professional tournaments and won the 1973 Kelly Springfield Open in Brisbane, Australia.
But during that turbulent era, she faced racism traveling throughout the South, where Black people were still being lynched, Powell would have hotel reservations that were lost and be stopped on the way into locker rooms even though she had the same credentials as her fellow competitors. She’d receive obscene phone calls and there were threats on her life.
While Powell never won an LPGA tour event during her 13 years on the tour, this did not stop her from having a tremendous impact on the game of golf. Merely being on the tour and visible at the tournaments was great, but its what she did after her pro career that really helped change the game.
After leaving the LPGA in 1980, Powell took her “game” to the world becoming an International Goodwill Ambassador. Such was her passion for the sport she wanted to bring it to parts of the world that had never been exposed to the game.
Beginning in 1981, Powell brought golf to Africa, doing so at her own expense, along with her clubs she brought a great amount of enthusiasm and professionalism and ended up traveling to that continent on more than 25 trips to host golf clinics.
For decades, she taught golf in Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. Powell’s contributions have gained her recognition at the birthplace of golf: St. Andrews, Scotland. In 2008, Powell received an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews. In 2015, Powell was among the first class of women to gain membership into the most exclusive club in the world, the 267-year-old Royal and Ancient Golf Club.
But Powell has also worked hard here in America in her commitment to expanding golf to more youth, women, seniors, minorities, and military veterans. In 2011, she launched Clearview H.O.P.E (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) a cost-free, year-round therapeutic and recreational golf programs specifically for women veterans.
In 1995 the Renee Powell Youth Gold Camp Cadre Program was launched. Powell’s goals with the clinic were to give inner-city junior high school students an opportunity to learn to play the game. The program was so successful, the PGA Foundation used it as a model for other youth golf programs, including The First Tee, a program dedicated to creating three-hole playing facilities for junior golfers in Louisville, Kentucky.
Today, she is the LPGA/PGA Head Golf Professional at Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio where she’s keeping her father’s legacy of “Golf for Everyone” alive. In 2000, Clearview Golf Course was named to the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Renee Powell continues to spread the gospel of golf wherever she goes.
As an African-American woman, like Gregory and Gibson, Powell has been at the forefront of two barriers.
“When you face discrimination, no matter what it is, I think it is hurtful and difficult,” she said in a New York Times story. “So I’ve always seen this correlation between prejudices against women and prejudices against people of color. I sort of equate the two together in a lot of ways.”
As the first African American tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in the world; the first African American to compete in the once-segregated U.S. Open, and later winner of one French Open, two U.S. Opens and two Wimbledons, Harlem-raised Althea Gibson gained worldwide fame in tennis. After becoming the first black Wimbledon winner in history in 1957, she was accorded a ticker-tape parade in New York City, becoming just the second African American to be honored in that manner, after Jesse Owens.
What is lesser known, is the fact that she excelled in golf as well.
She was one of the most famous athletes in the world, but despite her great success on the tennis court, she struggled financially. It must be remembered that tennis then was still an amateur sport, so she had to survive essentially off the generosity of family, friends and fans. In an effort to make money, toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing tennis before their games. After a year with the Globetrotters, she tried singing. She recorded several records as a singer and even sang on The Ed Sullivan Show. But a record deal went nowhere. She even appeared in a movie with John Wayne, “The Horse Soldiers.”
Althea still wasn’t able to make a living, so in 1960, she turned to a sport she’d picked up at a class at Florida A&M: golf.
“The siren song of golf was barely audible to me when I retired from amateur tennis,” Gibson wrote in “So Much to Live For,” her 1968 autobiography. “But it was never completely out of hearing, and soon it was to grow so loud that I would not be able to resist its seductiveness.”
At 36, Gibson changed course and found herself making history again after earning status to play on the LPGA Tour.
Her strength was as a really long hitter with a rather low ball fight that would often run. While she broke course records during individual rounds in several tournaments, Gibson’s highest ranking was 27th in 1966, and her best tournament finish was a tie for second after a three-way playoff at the 1970 at the Len Immke Buick Open, Althea’s short game and putting came up short. Although she was one of the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for five years, and won a car at a Dinah Shore tournament, according to “Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson,” she could only make financial ends meet with a few sponsorship deals and the support of her husband.
Fame did not shield Gibson from suffering through racism in her time as a pro golfer. The 60s were a turbulent time. There were some clubs that would not accept her, mostly in the South. One example was in 1965 at Beaumont Country Club for the Babe Zaharias Classic tournament. They would allow her to play the course but not enter the clubhouse, even for using the bathroom and forcing her to change in her car.
Lenny Wirtz, the tournament director for the LPGA in the 1960s, played a pivotal role in creating a more inclusive tour. When host golf courses turned their “open” tournaments into “invitationals” to keep black players out, Wirtz said, ‘We all play, or we all stay away.’”
And the members of the LPGA voted unanimously in support of Wirtz that if a sponsor or a club would not take all of them, they wouldn’t get any of them. So the LPGA players stood ground for a fellow athlete of color.
But staying on tour is expensive and Gibson struggled with traveling expenses and training expenses and after a 13-year career, she accepted a position as a tennis pro near her home in New Jersey.
Gradually she became even more reclusive and after years of financial and health problems, Althea died of respiratory failure in 2003.
Gibson came along during a difficult time in golf, gained the support of a lot of people, and quietly made a difference particularly for the future generations of black female golfers she inspired.
In 2016 at the LPGA Cambia Portland Classic, for the first time, four African-Americans were in the field: Ginger Howard, Mariah Stackhouse, Sadena Parks and Cheyenne Woods. And now, the LPGA has more African-American players playing on tour than the PGA Tour does.
Orphaned at just age 4 after her parents were killed in a car crash, Ann Moore was taken in by the Sanders, a white family that were her mother and fathers’ former employers. They would provide her room and board over the ensuing years in exchange for her working as a maid’s helper and later a maid.
Fast forward to 1938, married to Percy Gregory, they lived in Gary, Indiana where he worked for US Steel. The young wife was quite active in the community assisting in catering functions at local colleges and volunteering on church committees and civic charity drives. Outgoing and popular, Mrs. Gregory also received an appointment as the first African American on Gary’s formerly all-white public library board. At the same time, she used her athleticism to excel in tennis, even winning the Gary City Championship with a relentless serve-and-volley game. While she played tennis, her husband joined The Par-Breakers, a club for Black male golfers in Gary.
In 1943, with her husband serving in the Navy during WWII, Ann took up golf herself. Taking lessons from Calvin Ingram, a terrific player and a veteran of the United Golfers Association, the black golf circuit, she discovered a natural touch from tee to green. In just three years, Gregory crafted a high level game – an impressive accomplishment for someone who had not played golf until her early 30s. She started playing Gary’s city-owned hardscrabble nine-hole course and when Mr. Gregory returned from the war and started playing with his wife. Mrs. Gregory defeated him along with all his Par-Breaker buddies as well, even when they made her play from the men’s tees.
She joined the nearby Chicago Women’s Golf Association, an all-black organization that played at several regional public courses.
One day in 1947, husband and wife went out to play golf. Ann didn’t want to play the little course, the nine-holer to which Black golfers were relegated. But no Black golfer had ever played the big course.
“I’m a resident of Gary,” she firmly told the man in the pro shop, “I pay my taxes. My money’s as good and as green as anybody else’s. I want to play the big course.” Nobody stopped her.
So steadily did she develop her game that by 1947, having won the Chicago Women’s Golf Association Championship, the Joe Louis Invitational and the United Golf Association Championship, the black press dubbed her the “Queen of Negro Women’s Golf.”
In 1948 Gregory won her first of five Chicago Women’s Golf Club tournaments, as well as a tournament in Kankakee, Illinois, where both she and her husband competed and won in their categories.
In 1950 she won six of the seven tournaments she entered that year. In 1956 the Chicago Women’s Golf Club became the first African American organization to join the United States Golf Association, and Gregory soon became the first African American to play in the SGA women’s national championship.
Gregory was entering a world where the players were golf debutantes, young white women who competed for silver cups on a tour of private clubs and exclusive resorts.
So on September 17, 1956, Mrs. Gregory teed off in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis thus becoming the first black woman to play in a national championship conducted by the USGA.
Carolyn Cudone has never forgotten her first-round match with Gregory in that 1956 tournament. In a 1988 story for Golf Journal she remembered: “There was a mob at the first tee. A lot of them were reporters. I was shocked by the crowd’s size because in those days, first-round matches didn’t often draw so many people.”
But over 40 years later she also recalled the words of a club parking attendant telling her father before the match: “Your daughter better win today or you’d better not come back to this parking lot.”
Being the only black player in this tournament, at the same time, Gregory disappointed some folks in the black golfing community because she eschewed participating in a UGA competition being held on the same weekend.
Quite a likable person with a fine sense of humor and compassion, Gregory had an iron will too. And she exchanged leads with Cudone throughout the round, Gregory kept pace until she began to spray her tee shots over the final few holes, losing the match, 2 and 1.
“When we shook hands,” Cudone recalled, “do you know what Ann told me? She said: ‘My husband said I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. I guess I fooled him.’
They’d meet again 15 years later. In 1971 Cudone edged Gregory by one stroke at Sea Island Golf Club in St. Simons Island, Ga., to claim the fourth of her five consecutive U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur titles.
But Gregory would enjoy many victories, winning nearly 300 tournaments including: the Pepsi Cola International Championship in Puerto Rico (1963, 1964), Nassau (1965), Jamaica (1966), Spain (1967), and Hawaii (1968).
And her competitive drive amazingly extended into her seventies.
In 1989, at age 76 and competing against a field of 50 women, she won the gold medal in the U.S. National Senior Olympics, beating her competitors by 44 strokes.
She died the next year on February 5, 1990 at the age of 77.