Article in History / United States / African American
The history books of golf hold many memories of successful African American players. Tiger Woods may be the most well known African American player today, but he was most definitely not the first.
 
 
 


AND WOULDN’T THAT HAVE BEEN SOMETHING TO HAVE WON THAT DAY

“Heavenly Father, teach me that life is full of hazards, sand traps and waterholes, and that only by overcoming evil and enduring tribulations, do we enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Most Reverend Fulton J. Sheen, D.D. Ph.D. for the 58th PGA National Championship. August, 1976

February is a month of remembered and forgotten shoulders.

I ask my students, why February? Some wise wag replies, “Because they wanted to give us the shortest month of the year.” Eventually we get to the point that it was the “Father of Black History in the 20th Century,” Dr. Carter G. Woodson who chose the week when his country should appropriately celebrate its enriching legacy of Negro achievements and contributions. For Woodson, there could be no quibble over the most appropriate calendar moment for that celebration. It had to be the week that started out with the birth of the great Lincoln, and included the natal day of the great Douglass. Nowhere else in our history could we find stronger anchors for our nation’s annual celebration of Negro achievement than Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

The “great shoulders on which to stand” message is what Carter Woodson had in mind when he inaugurated, in the 1920s, the celebration of what he called “Negro History Week,” and what in the 1960s expanded into Black History Month. Dr. Woodson believed that we need to look back at our history stars to find the sustenance to look forward with hope, and to reach for our own stars.

Among the many special places where that Dr. Woodson Negro/Black History message comes home to me today is from the legacy left to me by my dear friend John Isaacs, star guard and sometimes forward for the great Harlem Renaissance Five basketball squads of the late 1930s. For so many, many wonderful years John’s strong basketball shoulders and forceful personality were a powerful and positive presence at the Hoe Avenue Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx, and in classrooms where he never tired of reminding young people that they stand on the shoulders of predecessors whose pioneering efforts to open up opportunities have made it possible for the youth of today to do what they do and be who they are.

When one of those youth, Tiger Woods, stepped to the podium several winters ago to accept the prestigious ESPY from ESPN as the golfer of the decade, he appropriately echoed the Woodson/Isaacs message by acknowledging Ted Rhodes and Charlie Sifford who, as African Americans, were the first to open the doors that Tiger regularly walks through with panache today. A nice, thoughtful, and historically fitting gesture. But in standing on the shoulders of Sifford and Rhodes, in acknowledging their struggles and triumphs as a legacy to be honored,

Ted Rhodes, Joe Louis and Joe Louis Barrow

Tiger left unmentioned someone whose record on the golf links of ancient times clearly earns him the title of pioneer door opener.

In 1896, our man of the forgotten shoulders was dubbed by the New York Herald as “The Boy Wonder of Golf.” The Chicago Tribune warned that anyone who plays the “Boy Wonder” has “to forget his boyishness and pay careful attention to his golf because, all things considered, he is the most remarkable player in the United States.” High praise indeed for someone who at the time was barely 18 years of age.

These encomiums followed on our young golfer’s performance in the second United States Open, played at Shinnecock Hills, Long Island, in 1896. The Open Championship that year might well be called the first, as it marked the initial entry of American professionals into the competition. More accurately American professional—none other than our “Boy Wonder,” who tells us that as far as he knew, he was the “first American born professional.” He notes that when he first came around “all the pros came from Scotland and England.”

Entered as the first American-born professional in that 1896 Open competition—and arguably as the first American-born pro, period—he was deprived of victory by a hole he knew like the back of his hand. “It was a little easy par four,” he recalled many years later. “I’d played it many times and I knew I just had to stay on the right side of the fairway with my drive. Well, I played it too far to the right and the ball landed in a sand road. Bad trouble in those days before sand wedges. I kept hitting the ball along the road, unable to lift it out of the sand, and wound up with an unbelievable eleven for the hole. You know I wished a hundred times I could have played that little par four again.” He finished in fifth place, seven strokes behind the winner, James Foulis, exactly the number of shots over par on his disastrous sand road 13th hole.

Well he came close—and considering his youth, and that he was almost banned from playing at all because of his color—close was a particularly significant achievement. And in terms of golf history he was, as historians like to say, present at the creation. That ought to count for something in the “shoulders” record books and in our memories.

Our “Boy Wonder” went on to play in several other United States Opens, most notably finishing fifth in 1902, tied with Willie Anderson, the defending champion, who would win the next three Opens. In his day he played and defeated many of the era’s finest golfers. And he taught some of the finest as well, including Walter Travis, the transplanted Australian who won the 1904 British Amateur; and if not one of the best, certainly one of the richest of that time, the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.

Let us reference some historical context as regards just what our “door opener’s” day was about for people of his color. In the same year that he was almost banned from competing in, and then almost won, the United States Golf Association’s United States Open Championship, another revered United States institution pronounced authoritatively on the status of America’s citizens of color. Ex-slave holder John Marshall Harlan, the one dissenter in the 1896 Supreme Court’s definition of the civil rights of the likes of our “Boy Wonder first American golf professional,” brings home to us the nadir that had been reached in race relations as America was ending the century that had witnessed the ending of slavery and the supposed equal rights guarantees of the 13th, 14th and 15th amended Constitution.

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundament law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race,

In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.

Mr. Justice Harlan in dissent – Plessy v Ferguson, 1896

Such was the legal, social and political context in which any citizen of African American ancestry at that time had to work out their destiny. After a variety of golf jobs at various courses, our “First Citizen” of American professional golf came to work his out in the 1920s at the place that would be his golf home from then till his death in the late 1960s. The Shady Rest Golf and Country Club in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, where our “Boy Wonder” served as professional for all those years, came into being in 1921 when an African American realty company, the Progressive Realty Company, purchased what was formerly the Westfield Country Club. The course was situated in the middle of a predominately Black community, and became a social colony for Blacks far and wide, hosting golf and tennis tournaments, and social events featuring such performers as Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald. W. E. B. DuBois came to Shady Rest on a Sunday afternoon in 1929 to speak to an overflow crowd. In her formative years, Althea Gibson honed her tennis game on the club’s courts. Throughout the years all the great black golfers played its links, as it became one of the regular sites for the United Golf Association tournaments. In the years before Blacks were allowed to compete on the PGA Tour, the UGA represented the closest thing to a black tour.

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Golfers enjoying an outing at Shady Rest Golf & Country Club in Scotch Plains, NJ, the first African-American owned and operated country club.

Late in life the “most remarkable American golfer of the 1890s looked out at his home course, and back at his long career on the links, and mused. “Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing when I quit school and went into golf. Maybe I should have kept going and gone to Yale like my brother who is a teacher. I wonder till I look out that window and see that golf course. Then I realize how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of the game, and I don’t wonder anymore.”

It is fitting that in New Jersey, where he served as a pro for so many years, his “shoulders to stand on legacy” is kept most alive—and made most productive. A not for profit John Shippen Foundation has seen that his portrait, painted by a leading African American artist, hangs in the clubhouse of the now municipal-owned Scotch Hills (Shady Rest) Country Club with a duplicate adorning the walls of the nearby USGA Golf Museum. A video documentary of his life, and of his beloved Shady Rest, offers an evocative telling of his story. Scholarships to commemorate his memory have been given to local area young people off to college who have shown an affinity for the game he loved so well and played for so long. The historical shoulders he offers as a legacy support are most notably carried forward today by a Scotch Plains-based committee, SAVE THE SHADY REST, that has taken up an effort to preserve and restore the historic clubhouse on the grounds of today’s Scotch Hills that dates back to the time when John Shippen was teaching and playing the game at his Shady Rest.

Our modern golf world of purses bigger than anything he could have imagined in his playing days, and of a stardom and celebrity status light years beyond what the pros of his time knew, was a reality for him to observe in his twilight years. He would look back then on the wonderful golf days of his youth and assert that the great players of his era would have been a match for the best golfers of today. “The great golfers of my day, Willie Anderson and Alex Smith, would hold their own with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. So would Walter J. Travis, Harry Vardon and Jerry Travers. The players of today have all the best of it. They have precision clubs. A much more lively and accurate ball, and the courses are in better shape. Yet the good ones of my time shot in the lower 70s. And they never carried more than nine clubs.”

For the great Tiger, and for all who love the game of golf, yes to Ted Rhodes and yes to Charlie Sifford. But let it also be said that when we remember—in our calendar’s shortest month and hopefully across all its other months as well—those Blacks who in so many areas of our nation’s life were the door openers and pioneers, it was John Shippen of Shinnecock Hills, Long Island, and Scotch Plains, New Jersey, who was present in the best, well, almost the best, of all possible ways, at the creation of the American game of golf. If he had only had one more club in his collection of nine, or hadn’t gone too far right on that easy fifth hole, we might remember that “Boy Wonder” as the African American who won what was for all intents and purposes the first United States Open.

And wouldn’t that have been something to have won that day?

 
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Lawrence Hogan
Dr. Lawrence Hogan is Senior Professor of History at New Jersey's Union County College. He has taught, researched, written about, published,

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