Paving The Rhodes For Other African-American Golfers


February 6, 2007

With February being designated as Black History Month, the USGA looks at the career of African-American golf trailblazer Ted Rhodes. Be sure to also check out past stories on Althea Gibson and Ann Gregory .

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

Immediately after Tiger Woods won his first Masters, in 1997, he invoked the names of three African-Americans who had preceded him as fine players.  "I am the first minority to win here, but I wasn't the first to play," said Woods.  "That was Lee Elder, and my hat's off to him and Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes, who made this possible for me."  Of Sifford and Elder, we know quite a lot, but what of Rhodes, the other player mentioned by Woods?

Rhodes was not America's first skilled black golfer. That place is reserved for John Shippen, who played in the 1896 United States Open at Shinnecock Hills.  But Rhodes played a key role in advancing the game for minorities.

Eight-time USGA champion Tiger Woods has often credited Ted Rhodes for his impact on African-American golfers, including himself. (USGA Photo Archives)

In the early part of the 20th century, gifted minority golfers were a rarity, simply because there were few opportunities to play.  Golf seemed a game for wealthy and middle-class Caucasians and of the more than 5,000 golf facilities in this country in 1939, fewer than 20 were open to African-American players.  That wouldn't stop Rhodes.

In his native Nashville, Tenn., Rhodes caddied, practiced and learned to play the game at a high level.  Few tournaments let him in, but he played where he could.  In the end, he sued the PGA for not allowing him to compete.

Beginnings

Rhodes was born to Frank and Della Anderson Rhodes in Nashville on Nov. 9, 1913.  At 12, he began caddieing at exclusive Belle Meade Country Club and Richland Country Club, where African-Americans like him were not allowed to play. But the youngster worked on his game.  He had his dreams. Using a discarded 2-iron, he hit practice balls at targets at city parks, such as the old Sunset Park, a baseball field.  When he could, he slipped onto a golf course to play a few random holes.

In the late 1930s, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, which had been set up during the Great Depression by the Roosevelt Administration to give unemployed men an opportunity to earn a wage. After his stint in the CCC, Rhodes joined the Navy. After World War II, he was discharged in Chicago, Ill., where he was befriended by entertainer Billy Eckstein and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis.

The friendship with Louis changed Rhodes' life.  The champ was fascinated with golf and hired Rhodes to be his personal instructor and playing partner. Rhodes also served as his valet. Playing as partners against entertainers, athletes and professional golfers, Louis and Rhodes seldom lost.

In Los Angeles, Rhodes, with Louis as his sponsor, worked on his game under the tutelage of Ray Mangrum, brother of 1946 U.S. Open Champion Lloyd Mangrum.  Rhodes was now ready to try his hand in tournament play, but where could he play?  The pro circuit, sponsored by the PGA, did not allow black golfers to compete.  The PGA's infamous "Caucasian clause" was a provision that allowed only "professional golfers of the Caucasian race" to join as members.

Rhodes played in the few tournaments sponsored by a national golf association for African-American players that had been conducting tournaments since 1926 as the United States Colored Golf Association.  Now known as the United Golf Association, the UGA conducted professional tournaments, with meager purses that often provided as little as $100 to the winner.

Rhodes became a star of the circuit.  Known alternately as "Rags" for his elegant dress, plus fours and silks, or "Straight Arrow" for his devastating accuracy, Rhodes was a consistent and stylish player.  While his game was built around his accuracy, he had a deft chipping and putting touch.  Rhodes' swing was effortless, graceful, and he won tournaments by huge margins.  In one stretch between 1946 and '47, Rhodes won six consecutive UGA tournaments, ending with the Joe Louis Open in Detroit.

Open Season

The year 1948 was a landmark in Rhodes' life.  Along with Bill Spiller, another prominent African-American professional, he competed in the L.A. Open at Riviera Country Club.  In a field of 66 of the nation's top professionals, Rhodes finished 21st and Spiller was 34th.  Their high finishes meant that the two men had qualified to play in the Richmond (Calif.) Open in mid-January.

Rhodes, Spiller and another black pro, Madison Gunther, submitted their entries and were accepted.  Shortly thereafter, the PGA returned their entries, pointing to the Association's "Caucasian only" clause.  The three men sued the PGA for $315,000 on the grounds that they were denied an opportunity to make a living in their profession.

While the men waited to go to court, the USGA that summer accepted Rhodes' entry into the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.  He opened with a 1-under-par 70, tying Toney Penna and Bobby Locke, one stroke behind amateur Ken Rogers and Sam Snead, and three strokes off the pace set by Ben Hogan and Lew Worsham.  But Rhodes faded to a 76 in the second round and closed with 77-79 to finish out of the money at 302 in the championship that was won by Hogan.

In September, the lawsuit against the PGA was scheduled to come before the court but the PGA took a new stance and pledged to stop banning Negro golfers from tournaments because of their race. They could play, the PGA said, if tournament sponsors invited them. Rhodes, Spiller and Gunther believed they had won the concessions they had sought and dropped the lawsuit.

In 1949, Rhodes had another great competitive year.  He won the first of his three consecutive titles in the National, the UGA's biggest championship. Then he won the Houston Open, the Sixth City Open, the Gotham Open, the Ray Robinson Open and the Joe Louis Invitational.

His troubles with the PGA resurfaced.  Rhodes had entered the PGA tournament in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which was to be played in August.  But PGA secretary George Schneiter informed him that his invitation had been sent by mistake.  The PGA had now reversed the promise it had made to Rhodes, Spiller and Gunther the year before.

Rhodes was again snubbed by the PGA when the San Diego Open turned down his entry.  An ensuing controversy in the press about the snub caused such uproar that Joe Louis was instead asked to play.

Battling On

Through it all, Rhodes was slow to anger and resigned himself to competing in UGA events.  But in 1950, sponsors of the Phoenix Open, which is the FBR Open today, invited him to compete and he made the cut.  For Rhodes, it was a rare appearance on the tour.

Discouraged by the PGA's stance, Rhodes never again attempted to fight the Caucasian-only clause in court.  He went on to won the Negro National Open in 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1957.  In 1960, he competed in Havana, Cuba.  Some sources have said he won as many as 150 tournaments during his career. But Rhodes was suffering from a kidney ailment.  Now married and the father of two daughters, Peggy and Deborah, he retired from playing professional golf and became an instructor.  Fledgling African-American stars Lee Elder, Althea Gibson and Ann Gregory were among his pupils.

In 1961, the PGA finally repealed its Caucasian-only clause, but it was too late for Rhodes, who was now 48 years old. 

In the late 1960s, Rhodes returned to Nashville. He died on July 4, 1969 while living at the city's El Dorado Motel.  He was 53 years old.

One day after his death, Rhodes's influence was recalled by Elder, the first African-American to play in the Masters (1975).  "Whatever has happened to me in big-time golf, and whatever success I attain eventually, I owe to Ted Rhodes," said Elder. "He took me under his wing when I was 16 years old and completely re-built my golf game and my life.  His encouragement and assistance enabled me to develop a game strong enough to compete on the PGA Tour."

Professional Jim Dent has said: "Younger guys like me would come by just so they could sit beside him and listen to him talk about golf.  He understood the game."

John Bibb, retired sports editor of the Nashville Tennessean, remembered Rhodes as a great player, the equal of any contemporaries who, if given the chance, would have competed well on the professional tour.

Little more than a month after his death, Nashville's Metropolitan board of Parks and Recreation renamed the Cumberland Golf Course in honor of Theodore "Ted" Rhodes.  And in 1997, Ted Rhodes was inducted into the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. Questions or comments can be sent to rglenn@usga.org.

 

 

 

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