St. Augustine, Fla. – Her handshake is firm, her gaze direct. “We’re all friends in golf,” she says, so quietly that the phrase is nearly lost on the breeze.
Exie Shackelford Ochier led the way into her home in a gated community near the World Golf Hall of Fame, an edifice for golf’s famous names. She is not among them.
Sometimes Ochier drives past the Hall on her way to The Slammer or The Squire courses where she volunteers with The First Tee Program, registering junior golfers and transporting their parents. It’s doubtful the youngsters she works with have any inkling of who she is.
Four decades ago, Ochier was a two-time champion of the United Golf Association’s National Women’s Open.
For more than 50 years, the UGA, which was founded in 1926, gave black golfers places to compete. During abject racial segregation, black golfers were almost universally excluded from the game. They couldn’t play on the PGA Tour, couldn’t join most private clubs and were generally unwelcomed (although United States Golf Association championships have always been open to everyone).
During the UGA’s heyday, from roughly 1946-1961, from early spring to late summer, UGA events were usually played on mean public layouts. The UGA, however, did provide competition and in 1930 the association also began conducting women’s championships. Marie Thompson of Chicago won the first one.
A few women are recognized as pioneers of African-American golf. In 1956, Ann Gregory became the first black golfer to play in the U.S. Women’s Amateur, conducted by the USGA. In 1963, tennis great Althea Gibson joined the LPGA which, unlike the PGA Tour, had no exclusionary policy. Renee Powell became the first black golfer to play in the U.S. Girls’ Junior and later joined the LPGA. These women are famous for the battles they fought and won.
Others, such as Lucy Williams of Indianapolis (1936, 1937 UGA champion), Mary Brown (1948), Eoline Thornton (1951) and Vernice Turner (1958, 1961) are among the less well-known. (View Exie Ochier photo gallery)
Exie Ochier played when black women golfers were seldom written about. One newspaper mentioned her second UGA Championship in the caption of a photo of four male members of a company golf team. She was not pictured. Still, it’s a tribute to her prominence that clippings in the USGA Library include write-ups and photos of her wins.
Today, even crack junior golfers have been interviewed dozens of times and most golf champions easily reel off their opinions. Ochier is unaccustomed to being interviewed for a national audience and she is more reserved. She is thoughtful, rather than glib.
Of medium height, she moves like an athlete, gracefully. This winter day, wearing nicely tailored slacks, a black jersey and her signature string of pearls, Ochier sits in a French Regency-style chair in her tasteful living room, and folds her hands on her lap. The walls are lined with abstract paintings in brilliant colors. A glass cabinet holds glittering crystal. While she once owned more than a hundred golf trophies, none are in sight.
“When we moved here from Michigan, there was no room for them, so I gave them to the Salvation Army,” she says.
Exie Shackelford Ochier was born in Florida’s Leon County, near Tallahassee, in a year she does not wish to divulge. “Some say age is just a number,” she laughs, “and mine is unlisted.”
Discovering the Game
Golf first caught her eye when she was a coed at Florida A&M University. “You went by driving ranges and saw it,” she said. “Sometimes you’d get out of the car and say, ‘Let me try that,’ because it looked easy. But we just wanted to hit balls. We didn’t go to golf courses much because, let’s face it, there weren’t many where we could play. And with books and tuition, it was expensive.”
After graduating, she married Paul Ochier, a successful businessman, and the couple moved to Detroit, where she earned a master’s degree in education at Wayne State University, concentrating on learning disabilities. It was the era of “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” a treatise on such disabilities, and she taught school for three years.
On Detroit-area public and municipal courses, Exie’s game improved and she competed on the club and regional level. She had several instructors, who she chooses not to identify. “Once I decided I wanted to play, I wanted to take instruction nearly every day,” she said. “They were very kind and they knew me so well that I could call them from tournaments and they could tell me what I was doing wrong.
“I was very determined and, in a way, very self-confident. Very much so,” she said. “When I’m interested in something, I pursue it diligently, so I did go to the golf course every day. I did hit balls every day.”
She won the first Detroit city women’s championship she entered. “It was,” she said, “great, in a way and not so great, in a way. It was a result of my determination that I had played well and accomplished something in the game. It pleased my instructors, but there’s always the thought that you could have played better.”
All the while her husband Paul, a low-handicap golfer, supported her efforts. “He was a good player and a good supporter, a tremendous person to lean on, and always at my back.”
Further support came from her closely-knit family, which included several good athletes.
Ochier speaks eloquently about what drew her to the game. “The challenge,” she said. “The interaction on the golf course with golfers. The extended friendships it brought me. The competition. It’s like life. Golf is almost the path you travel in life. You have the ups and downs, the bad days and good days. You have the crooks in the road and you learn to straighten them out. You’re dealing with self. No one putts for you, chips for you or hits the ball for you.”
The Big Topic
This day, the so-called “elephant in the room,” the issue that is so huge but about which no one speaks, is racism. There are terrible stories from those times, hurtful, tragic stories of insults and assaults on people because of the color of their skin. Many stories have been told in books such as Forbidden Fairways, by Calvin H. Sinnette, and Uneven Lies, by Pete McDaniel.
When asked about the issue, Ochier stands and walks slowly around the room, contemplating before she answers. She speaks not of incidents, but of how she reacted. As a young adult, she says, she dealt with racism by using lessons she learned from her parents and grandparents.
“It was,” she said, “the tenor of the times. In history, you can’t deny what occurred but you don’t dwell on it. You console yourself. You respect yourself and remember what your parents told you: To honor the things you have, to honor what you are and what you want to be.
“There may have been covert animosities but for the most part in my individual play with white women as well as with other people, I didn’t suffer the animosity. When we played, we talked.”
She speaks in a low, firm voice as she walks, “They knew what was happening. I knew what was happening, but in many cases they were extending themselves, too.
“After golf we shared lunch and had a drink. We had played with the same color ball on the same green fairway. We were faced with the same challenges. All you wanted to do was play a game of golf and if you won, they shook your hand and said, ‘Good game.’ And if they won, you patted them on the back and said, ‘Good game’ to them too. Usually, they wanted to play again, so you exchanged phone numbers. There was camaraderie.”
The Two-Time Champion
During the era when she played so well, Ochier at first admittedly knew little about the UGA but saw ads about its National Women’s Open Championship and decided to enter. Twice she had tried to enter the Michigan Women’s Amateur but was stymied by a stipulation that entrants had to be members of a private club, which she was not.
UGA records are scarce, but Ochier recalls the first UGA championship she won was played in Pittsburgh in 1970.
“It was truly an Open,” she said. “Anyone of any race could play and I think one or two white gentlemen played in the men’s division. It was a national championship and what I remember most is that it was very well organized. I didn’t see a significant difference between the state amateur and the UGA tournament.”
Her recollections of her second win, in 1971 in Hartford, are more vivid. “I was in the lead by about four strokes going into the last round,” she said, smiling at the memory. “I had a pleasant foursome. We walked and had caddies. I was thinking, as I always do – play the hole, forget the opponent, control the ball as best you can and play within yourself. Play the shot you know you can play.”
Legendary champions have made similar remarks.
And so, Ochier won the UGA National Women’s Open for the second straight time. She doesn’t remember her winning margin and her only memento is a small plaque which hangs on the wall of her patio. It’s a cold day, but she walks outside to check the plaque for the dates of her victories.
A Life Well-Lived
Exie and Paul never had children. She is a widow now, but she has much to do. She seldom plays golf, enjoying a round every few months only if the weather is good. She sometimes watches golf on television, looking for the great shot. “That can come from anywhere, anytime, male and female,” she said. “Any player can hit a great shot, but when? That’s what I look for.”
Her sister, Dell, brother James and nephew Herbert Ochier and his wife Sylvia, along with many more nephews and nieces, live in nearby Melbourne. There are frequent family get-togethers. Ochier is active in her church, one of the valued church members who help shoulder the charity work. She’s in contact with friends, many of whom she met through golf.
“I’m fortunate to have friends from New York to California, from Maine to Miami, and even abroad,” she said. “We’re still in touch, Christmas cards, that sort of thing, although, as time passes, there aren’t as many.”
A longtime supporter of junior golf, her volunteer work with The First Tee is a priority. “Seldom do you see a junior golfer misbehave. Their behavior is impeccable,” she says. “That’s our reserve in golf.”
Reminded that she is a champion, she said, “I never thought of it that way. I took the road less traveled. I did what I did and when I was doing it, enjoyed it.”
Her guest speaks of thoughts about golf late at night when, hoping to sleep, one thinks of perhaps turning the right hand a bit more under the grip of the club and Exie’s eyes flash with a quick light, more light than when she spoke of anything else in her full, full life.
“Yes,” she says. “That’s it. You know!”
On the walk to Ochier’s front door, the guest admires the abstract paintings and she says quietly, “They’re mine. I painted them. They’re oils, but I do have a water color. Would you like to see it?”
She goes into a storage room and emerges with an abstract water color, a striking work with delicate layering of the transparent colors. Small. Lovely.
She may do another painting soon, she says, but first she must give it a lot of thought.
The UGA, which brought honor to her, no longer exists. Its purpose was largely accomplished when the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. Tournaments opened up for everyone. After 1964, the association kept on but when it no longer had a desperate need to fill, disbanded.
Golf has long been trying to escape its past on issues of inclusion. The PGA Tour ended its Caucasian-only clause in 1961. Minority children are welcomed into junior programs. The PGA of America and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America recently hosted a diversity seminar.
The world of golf keeps trying to make things right. Exie Shackelford Ochier was there when things were wrong. She played through times more difficult than most golfers can ever know and, in the end, she won.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. You can contact her at email@example.com.