Paving The Rhodes For Other
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.