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Ideas | Craig Fehrman

Unequal on the fairway

Golfer Ted Rhodes, the first African American to play in a PGA-sanctioned event.AP Photo/File

Every weekend, America ends up arguing about golf. Does Donald Trump golf more than Barack Obama did as president? (Yes.) Does Donald Trump golf more than he promised he would? (Yes.) Does it matter? (Not nearly as much as other things do.)

But there’s something deeper to this presidential scramble: One of our golfers-in-chief is white, but one is black. It’s worth considering how race intersects with one of America’s more privileged pastimes.

In a new book, “Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf,” historian Lane Demas shows the legacy of African-Americans on the links is longer and deeper than we might expect.

Ideas reached Demas by phone at his office at Central Michigan University. Below is an edited excerpt.

Q: The first golf club opened outside of the United Kingdom was in South Carolina in 1786. What was the game like back then?


A: Our modern notion of golf is that it’s a spacially isolated activity. But early golf had makeshift courses in shared public parks, where people would hit golf balls at flags and holes they’d fashioned themselves. We know that in those parks people relied on their slaves when engaging in picnicking or other amusements. So we can imagine that the same was likely true for the few individuals who hit golf balls. They might have had their slaves carry the equipment, retrieve a ball hit into the woods, or make the holes in the ground to serve as the rudimentary course.

Q: Golf became broadly popular in the late 19th century, which led to more gadgets like one invented by a Bostonian, George Franklin Grant. Who was he?

A: Grant was a dentist and one of the first black instructors at Harvard. But he should also be considered an early pioneer in the game of golf. He started out hitting balls outside his home and then took to playing with a group of black friends, including a number of men from the local NAACP. Eventually he filed a patent, the first patent, for a golf tee. He didn’t make significant money off it — he was written out of the sport’s history, and the irony is that for a long time a white dentist was credited with creating the golf tee. But Grant is arguably the inventor of the modern tee.


Q: Grant’s circle was fairly wealthy. How did less fortunate African-Americans experience golf?

A: As caddies. Caddying has a strong class element to it, going back to Europe. There’s an age element, as well. But in America and especially in the South there’s also a racial element. It was a mixed bag. On the one hand, caddying carried a narrative of exploitation and servitude. There was this popular genre of black caddy anecdotes and jokes. But on the other hand, young black men were advising older white clients on which club to use and how to swing. Caddying was also the primary way African-Americans learned the game and became fine players themselves. So caddying could be empowering and even subversive.

Q: Some of those early players starred in the United Golfers Association. Was that basically a Negro Leagues for black golfers?

A: The UGA’s origins are similar to the USGA’s origins, where four or five clubs banded together to organize tournaments to see who was the best golfer. By the 1930s the UGA had become a sort of a national black golf tour, a traveling celebration of golf in the black community. They very quickly added a women’s division. They brought in sponsors from local black businesses. There were banquets and dances. Local black political leaders gave speeches.


But UGA events also included the best black players in the country — players like Ted Rhodes. They used their success in the UGA to make the case for integrating the PGA. One thing that’s interesting about golf is that, every single time, the golfer plays the course. UGA events sometimes took place on courses where the PGA had also held events, and that meant people could look at the scores and see Ted Rhodes was at this course and shot this score. You didn’t even need Rhodes to participate in a tournament with the white players to see he could compete with them. By the 1950s black players were being granted limited access to PGA tour events, and the UGA was key in that.

Q: How did golf fit into the civil rights movement?

A: Golf actually became quite important in challenging Jim Crow segregation. Municipal golf courses were in many communities the most visible segregated spaces — I mean, they’re large. So a series of civil rights cases attempted to integrate those courses. I counted at least 27 major cases from 1940 to about 1970, and in some instances the golf cases came before other kinds of important cases. The lawsuits to integrate golf courses clearly informed further activism. It wasn’t this separate world of leisure.

Q: So should this history change the way we view a modern star like Tiger Woods?

A: I think so. Many saw 1997, the year Tiger won his first major, as the dawn a new era. But there were at least 20 or 25 African-Americans on PGA and LPGA before Tiger came along. Black people had a greater involvement in professional golf during the 1960s and 1970s than they did in 1997 or even today. So maybe 1997 actually marked the end of an era. Maybe Tiger Woods didn’t open the floodgates for young black players but instead stood as a brilliant exception to the trend of black players disappearing from the tour. Maybe the excitement around him was a sign that the black community was losing access to golf courses — access they had fought for and won over many years.


Craig Fehrman is a freelance writer.