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Golf's ugly legacy

America's fairways have been anything but fair to black golfers. Yet African-Americans can point proudly to their contributions to the game.

February 07, 1999|By Calvin H. Sinnette

In the mid-1930s, Bartholomew formed a construction company, which received a major contract to repave Tulane Avenue. During World War II, his firm worked for one of the largest shipbuilders in the city, and after the war, it erected foundations for factories, office buildings and housing complexes. He played golf into his eighties, stopping only in the last two years of his life, when his health failed. He died on Oct. 12, 1971.

Clyde Martin

Out of the caddie ranks emerged some of the finest golfers the country has seen. The golfing exploits of such ex-caddies as Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson are well known.

Less known are the caddying careers of black golfers Charlie Sifford, Ted Rhodes and Lee Elder. Clyde Martin was another of those highly rated -- but seldom mentioned -- black golfers who began his career as a caddie. Born in southern Maryland, he began to caddie at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda during his pre-teen years. This was in the late 1920s when the renowned Tommy Armour held sway as the club's professional. Armour soon recognized Martin's golfing talents and began to pit the young caddie against visitors looking for betting action. Martin rarely lost in those head-to-head matches. But following the code of the day, he was never given an opportunity to play in national competition.

By 1939, however, his playing abilities were so well known in black golf circles that he was named the club professional at the newly opened (and segregated) Langston Golf Course in Washington, D.C. Within 18 months of the Langston appointment, world heavyweight champion Joe Lewis hired Martin as his personal coach. Martin remained with Louis until 1942, when Louis went into the army. After the war, Martin played regularly on the black golf circuit until his death in the early 1950s.

Ann Gregory

The middle child of five, Ann Moore was born to Myra and Henry Moore in Aberdeen, Miss., on July 25, 1912. When Ann was about 15, her father died. Her mother died shortly afterward, and the five children were parceled out among relatives. Ann lived briefly with an older married sister and her husband before taking a job as the live-in maid for the Sanders family of Aberdeen. With her engaging personality and responsible attitude, Ann soon endeared herself to the white family, who saw to it that she finished high school.

In 1930, Ann followed her married sister when she moved to Gary, Ind. Naturally athletic, Ann began playing tennis and won the city championship in 1937. The next year, she married Leroy Percy Gregory, a United States Steel worker who was an avid golfer. Ann Gregory became so annoyed with her husband's devotion to the game that she considered divorcing him. He served in the Navy during World War II, and while he was gone, Ann missed him so much, she learned how to play. When Leroy returned in 1945, he was surprised to learn that his wife had become an accomplished golfer.

In 1948, Ann and Leroy won their respective events in a tournament in Kankakee, Ill. During the three-day event, Ann defeated Lucy Mitchell, Cleo Ball and Geneva Wilson, all of whom were former champions in the United Golf Association, an organization created to promote golfing among blacks.

In July 1950, Chicago Defender golf writer Russ Cowans expressed disappointment at the small number of young black women golfers. He said Ann was in a group of older women who "have reached the zenith of their career and are on the way down the hill." Cowans was wrong. Not long after the piece appeared, she won the Sixth City Open in Cleveland. She went on to win the Midwest Amateur in early August and later equaled the women's course record at a Flint, Mich., tournament. Ann capped the 1950 season by defeating the highly respected Eoline Thornton to capture the women's title at the national UGA tournament in Washington, D.C.

During the next half-decade, Ann Gregory was such a dominant force in African-American women's golf that some of her competitors asked for handicaps. In 1956, she became the first African-American woman golfer to enter a USGA-sponsored event when she teed off in the U.S. Women's Amateur at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Ann maintained her mastery over other black women golfers. From all indications, she won more than 100 golfing events during a 20-year span. On some of these occasions, she played with guest celebrities such as Joe Louis, Althea Gibson and Jackie Robinson.

Even before venturing onto the national circuit in the early 1960s, Ann confronted bigoted officials at the Gleason Park public golf course in Gary. Until then, African-American golfers were confined to a nine-hole course, while white golfers enjoyed access to the 18-hole layout.

Demanding the right to play where she chose, Ann paid her fee and strode to the first tee of the larger course. She played the round without interference, and through her resolute action, the Gleason Park officials abandoned their racial double standard.

In 1959, Ann was denied entry into the player's banquet at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda at the conclusion of the U.S. Women's Amateur. In 1963, she was mistaken as the maid for another contestant at the Women's Amateur in Williamstown, Mass.

Ann Moore Gregory died on Feb. 5, 1990. A granite marker in her memory stands at the sixth hole of the South Gleason Park Golf Course in Gary.

Dr. Calvin H. Sinnette is emeritus professor of pediatrics at Howard University College of Medicine. He is an associate member of the National Minority Golf Scholarship Association. Dr. Sinnette provided all of the photographs for this article, except the one of John Shippen.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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