12 Black Golfers and Golf Innovators You Should Know

A group of women holding golf clubs at the Wake-Robin golf club, an African-American women's golf club in Washington DC, on April 6, 1938.
Members of the Wake-Robin Golf Club, the first golf club for African-American women in Washington, D.C.

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These lesser-known black golfers and golf innovators had major victories and made significant contributions to the sport. From inventing the modern golf tee to fighting for the desegregation of golf, the golfers on this list made an undeniable impact on the golf world.

(In order to feature lesser-known golfers, this list omits some of the most famous golfers, such as World Golf Hall of Fame member Charlie Sifford, and 12-time PGA Tour winner Calvin Peete.)

01
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John Shippen

Golfer John Shippen circa 1913

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Shippen, son of an African-American father and Native American mother, was a caddie at Shinnecock Hills, a golf club named after his mother's tribe. When the U.S. Open came to Shinnecock Hills in 1896, Shippen entered. Some of the pros entered in the tournament threatened to boycott if Shippen was allowed to play. Ultimately, the USGA president backed Shippen, the pros backed down, and the tournament went on.

Shippen peaked at second place after two rounds and ultimately finished in fifth place. He played in several other tournaments, including the 1902 U.S. Open, where he finished fifth. Shippen later worked as a clubmaker and club professional. However, the PGA of America denied membership to Shippen, due to its policy of racial discrimination. In 2011, the PGA of America posthumously made Shippen a member of the PGA.

02
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George Franklin Grant

George Franklin Grant, a dentist, was the first African-American faculty member at Harvard University. He is also credited by the USGA as the inventor of the modern golf tee. In 1899, Grant designed the golf tee that's still in use today: a wooden peg inserted into the ground, on which the golf ball is balanced.

03
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George Adams and Helen Webb Harris

George Adams and Helen Webb Harris founded two important African-American golf clubs in Washington, D.C.: the Royal Golf Club and Wake-Robin Golf Club, respectively. Adams' and Webb's clubs led the fight to desegregate D.C.'s public golf courses, which succeeded in 1941. Later, both were involved in anti-segregation lawsuits against the PGA of America, and Adams was among the cofounders of the United Golf Association, the alternative to the then-segregated PGA Tour.

04
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Ted Rhodes

Golfer Ted Rhodes pictured in 1948

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Ted Rhodes learned golf as a caddie in Nashville in the 1920s. In the 1930s, he became golf instructor to Joe Louis and other African-American celebrities. In 1940, Rhodes relocated to Southern California, and in 1948 he qualified for the U.S. Open, becoming the first African-American golfer since John Shippen to play in that tournament.

In the 1950s, along with Bill Spiller, Rhodes sued the PGA of America, seeking to remove the PGA's "Caucasians-only" clause. The PGA settled out of court but did not begin certifying black golfers as PGA Professionals until late 1961. Rhodes and other African-American golfers remained barred from PGA Tour events. Rhodes won more than 100 tournaments in the United Golf Association. Nashville is now the home to Ted Rhodes Golf Course.

05
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Joe Louis

Boxing legend Joe Louis tees off at a golf course in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1946.

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Louis is remembered today as one of the greatest boxers of all-time, but he was also an avid and accomplished golfer. Louis played a vital role in the fight to desegregate the PGA Tour. At the 1952 San Diego Open, Louis, playing as an amateur on a sponsor invitation, became the first black golfer to play a PGA Tour tournament run by the PGA of America, as the PGA did not want to block such a famous figure from the tournament. In addition to championing the desegregation of the PGA Tour—which ultimately took place in 1961—Louis supported other African-American golfers and helped found The First Tee, a charitable children's organization.

06
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Bill Spiller

Bill Spiller sits dejectedly at the first tee as golfers start their rounds in the 1952 San Diego Open, from which the PGA banned Spiller due to his skin color.
Bill Spiller after being barred from playing the 1952 San Diego Open.

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Bill Spiller was a top golfer in the United Golf Association who joined Ted Rhodes in fighting for the desegregation of the PGA. In 1952, Spiller was invited to play in the San Diego Open (alongside Joe Louis), but the PGA barred Spiller from entry. In 2009, the PGA of America awarded posthumous membership to Spiller.

07
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Ann Gregory

Ann Gregory was a frequent United Golf Association tournament champion, and in 1956, she became the first African-American woman to play 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 refused to allow Gregory in its clubhouse for the players' dinner.

Gregory was runner-up at the 1971 USGA Senior Women's Amateur and, one year before her death, won the 1989 U.S. National Senior Olympics golf tournament by 44 strokes.

08
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William Wright

Wright became the first African-American USGA champion when he won the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. A year later, Wright won the NAIA men's golf championship playing for Western Washington State College. Wright and his parents fought to desegregate Seattle golf courses for black and Asian golfers. He went on to play in five U.S. Senior Open tournaments.

09
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Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson and singer/actress Dinah Shore look over the course during the Dinah Shore Colgate Winner's Circle on April 16, 1972
Althea Gibson (left) with tournament host Dinah Shore at the 1972 LPGA Colgate Dinah Shore Winner's Circle tournament.

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Althea Gibson was a pioneer in tennis long before she became a pioneer in golf. She desegregated the U.S. Open tennis championships in 1950, several years before becoming the first black champion at the U.S. Open and at Wimbledon. Later, Gibson turned to golf, and, in 1964, at the age of 37, became the first African-American LPGA Tour member. She never won on the LPGA, but finished in the Top 50 on the money list every year from 1964 to 1971.

10
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Pete Brown

Pete Brown, first black golfer to win on the PGA Tour, adds another victory at the 1970 San Diego Open.
Pete Brown gets a hug from his wife, plus the trophy and the winner's check from tournament host Andy Williams after winning the 1970 San Diego Open.

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When the PGA of America desegregated, Pete Brown—already a United Golf Association tournament champion—got his PGA card in 1963. A year later, he became the first African-American PGA Tour winner at the 1964 Waco Turner Open. Brown won once more during his 17-year PGA Tour career, then spent several years playing the Champions Tour.

11
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Lee Elder

Lee Elder and Gene Littler prepare to tee off in the 1975 Masters
Lee Elder (left) gets reassurance from Gene Littler as the pair prepare to tee off in the 1975 Masters, where Elder became the first black golfer to play that tournament.

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Lee Elder was the first black golfer in The Masters. He also played a role in helping to end discriminatory policies on the South African golf tour. In 1970, Elder joined Gary Player for a series of exhibitions in South Africa, which in turn helped to open up some tournaments and courses to some black golfers.

12
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Bill Powell and Renee Powell

Daughter and father Renee Powell and Bill Powell as their family owned golf course Clearview Golf Club in 2009.
Renee Powell and her father Bill Powell at Clearview Golf Club in Ohio in 2009.

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The father-and-daughter Powells were both pioneers in their way. 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 African-American woman to gain LPGA membership. After her tour career, she became a highly regarded teaching professional.

The Powells were awarded the Jack Nicklaus Golf Family Award by the National Golf Foundation in 1992. Both father and daughter are inductees into the PGA of America Hall of Fame.