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‘It’s city golf’: In historic Franklin Park, a diverse and thriving course

Dennis Rorie wore his classic golf outfit while playing a round of golf at the William J. Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park.
Dennis Rorie wore his classic golf outfit while playing a round of golf at the William J. Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Stephen Pit Daley golfs so much at Franklin Park he refers to it as his second home, but today, things just aren’t working out.

“We are all playing crappy,” lamented Daley, a 45-year-old who works at Lowe’s, in the middle of a round. “Everybody’s having a hard time.”

On the 15th hole, there is a respite: Daley’s 7-iron sends the ball sailing through the air, and it comes to rest on the green, more than a football field-and-a-half away.

The allure of golf: Through a morass of struggle comes a glimmer of hope. Daley, who grew up in Antigua and lives on nearby Elmont Street in Dorchester, is among the regulars at the William J. Devine Golf Course, an unusually diverse public space in a city with a notorious history of racism, and in a sport that has its own extensive record of segregation.

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Tyrone Camper (left) and Stephen Pit Daley had a laugh during a round  of golf at the William J. Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park.
Tyrone Camper (left) and Stephen Pit Daley had a laugh during a round of golf at the William J. Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“There’s a lot of good Black golfers here," said Stephen Tshuka, 42, a Black man who lives in Westwood. “For me, that’s rare.”

Marshall Thompson, 70, of Randolph, called Franklin Park “the most diverse golf course of anywhere that I’ve seen.”

Golf in the United States has long been associated with white wealth and privilege. The Professional Golfers’ Association of America required its members to be white until the 1960s.

African American Golf Digest reported last year that Black people, who make up 13 percent of the US population, represent only about 3 percent of the country’s 24 million recreational golfers.

But Franklin Park’s Men’s Inner Club, a membership group of course regulars and those who are looking to establish a handicap — a measure that allows golfers of differing abilities to compete — has a majority Black membership. Of its 89 members, 61 are racial or ethnic minorities, including 50 Black golfers. (The city doesn’t track racial demographic data for all golfers who play the course.)

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“There are a lot of places where we’re really not welcome,” said Rudy Cabral Sr., 84, who has played the course since 1965. “So you tend to go where you feel comfortable.”

Daley said of the course’s vibe, “It’s just loose."

“When you see golf on TV," he said, "everybody’s uptight, when you come here, it’s just relaxed.”

Marshall Thompson, a long-time player at the course, sat in his cart during a round of golf.
Marshall Thompson, a long-time player at the course, sat in his cart during a round of golf.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

And because Franklin Park is a public course, anyone can sign up to play. That gives people from different backgrounds unusual opportunities to mingle, while sharing a common experience, said Lane Demas, a Central Michigan University professor who has written a book about the history of race and golf. Members of the public don’t necessarily know everyone in their foursome when they show up to play.

“Golf is stereotypically, and in reality, this tool of white elitism, but it’s also this unique thing,” he said. “Municipal golf has the potential to mix the races like no other sport in American history.”

The course’s location is part of its charm. It’s situated amid the greater Franklin Park — 485 acres in the geographic heart of the city that connect Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roslindale. Sometimes birdwatchers or joggers unwittingly meander onto the course. It’s not unusual to see folks listening to music, playing dominoes or cornhole, or barbecuing at the edge of the course’s parking lot.

“I find it interesting because you have this formal game, and guys are grilling, and music is playing,” said Myron Smith during a recent round of golf. “You can hear guys with their boomboxes on, and it doesn’t bother you because you know that’s part of the tradition, part of the golf course.”

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“It’s city golf,” said Raymond Cheek Jr., a retired firefighter who lives in Roxbury.

Franklin Park is thought to be the site of the first game of golf played in New England, in 1890; six years later, the public course opened. In the 1920s, The Boston Globe called it one of the best public courses in the nation.

But in Franklin Park’s early days, the course was segregated. Arlington resident George Grant, a Harvard-educated Black dentist, issued the first patent for a wooden golf tee in 1899, but he was only permitted to play at Franklin Park after white players were done, or during off-peak hours, according to a Massachusetts Golfing Association magazine story.

Franklin Park today isn’t a postracial utopia. America is still America, Boston is still Boston, and, as Cheek put it, “People are still people, man.”

Regulars have heard racist comments on the course, although William Lodge, a 59-year-old Black golfer who is president of the Inner Club, said it doesn’t happen often.

“Once in a while you might hear some loose, comedic joke that somebody feels is funny . . . . You just say, ‘All right, this is not the place,’ ” said Lodge, who lives on Crawford Street and works as a regional lab manager for a local health care company.

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Kenny Lightfoot waited in a cart as Charlie Harris and William Lodge watched a friend tee off at the William J. Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park.
Kenny Lightfoot waited in a cart as Charlie Harris and William Lodge watched a friend tee off at the William J. Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The course’s longtime regulars have seen it through thick and thin. The course fell into disrepair in the 1970s, and reports of vandalism and robberies on the grounds became commonplace. City officials debated shutting the course down.

Cabral, the 84-year-old Mattapan resident, recalled a time when there were only four playable holes and golfers would bring their own lawn mowers to cut the greens.

“We’ve hung on through the good times and the bad times,” said Cabral.

It’s been rehabilitated and now enjoys packed tee times — the course saw 34,000 rounds played last year — and enjoys glowing reviews from its patrons.

But some of the regulars worry gentrification in the neighborhoods surrounding the course may be encroaching on their beloved turf, as wealthy white home buyers displace Black and brown renters.

“What I’m scared of personally is, with all the new people moving to Boston, selling condos and whatnot, that eventually we’re going to get squeezed out,” said Cabral.

Daley said he hopes the city is committed to keeping the cost of playing in check so that “regular folks can go and play golf.”

Cheek and Lodge also want the city to help recruit Boston’s next generation of Black and brown golfers. More public schools should have golf teams, they say; at the moment, only Boston Latin School does.

Ryan Woods, the city’s parks commissioner, said keeping the city’s courses affordable is a priority. And he said various efforts are underway “to get [youth] into the game.” First Tee of Massachusetts, a group that introduces golf to young people, reached about 400 youth this year through its programming at Franklin Park, 20 percent of whom were Black, according to the National Golf Foundation.

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Raymond Cheek teed off  while playing a round  of golf at the William J. Devine Golf Course.
Raymond Cheek teed off while playing a round of golf at the William J. Devine Golf Course. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

However, the course’s regulars want the city to do more.

“I would like to see the tradition of Franklin Park continue,” said Daley.

Shortly before Daley tried his luck on 15, Cheek was on another par-3 on the course.

It’s a good day for golf; warm enough for shorts, and the sun is shining. Sometimes the wind comes sweeping up from the valley, Cheek said, and the bunkers are almost always in play here unless you can hit the ball straight to the pin, which today is on the right of the green. He picks a hybrid club from his bag. Some people think the course is easy because it’s wide open, he said. He shakes his head.

“It’s a challenge,” he said.

He walks up to the tee and smacks the ball toward the green.

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.