My father, Joe Louis, was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world during a time when the title was widely recognized as the most prestigious in sports. During World War II, he was fortunate enough to take advantage of his iconic status to conduct recruiting and fundraising efforts that helped galvanize the country.
After his boxing career, he took up golf, playing in the 1952 San Diego Open during an era in which blacks were excluded from PGA tournaments. He also provided support to African-American golfers such as Ted Rhodes, and I am proud of the key role he played in helping integrate the PGA.
Considered one of the most public figures in America, my father could point to a long list of accomplishments that broke down barriers and inspired millions of people around the world. Yet his proudest achievement took place in private: He paid for the education of his sister Vunies, who was a trailblazer herself by becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college when she received a degree from Howard University in Washington D.C.
Traveling around the world, I invariably wind up talking to people I meet about my father. He wanted nothing more than to help others, and I am always struck that nearly everyone I talk to has something positive, meaningful or personal to say about him.
Although my father passed away in 1981, before I got involved in the golf business, I think he would have been proud of my current work with The First Tee, an organization that uses golf to promote education, character, values and a healthy lifestyle among young people.
And I am honored to represent him at the symposium hosted by the USGA Museum on February 18 to kick off “American Champions and Barrier Breakers,” the special exhibit celebrating the accomplishments of my dad, Althea Gibson and Jackie Robinson.
Through my father, I actually got to play golf with Ms. Gibson when I was 11, and I remember her as kind, supportive and a very, very good golfer. Occasionally, she would join a group including my father and his friends that played regularly at a course south of Chicago known as Pipe O’Peace Golf Course, which was renamed in 1986 after my father.
Golf was a big part of my father’s life for decades. After being introduced to the game in 1935, my father became so smitten by golf that it may have distracted him from the training for his first fight with Max Schmeling in 1936. After suffering his first professional loss to Schmeling, my father realized the importance of discipline and commitment, lessons that he used to prepare for their historic rematch in 1938. After his first-round knockout of Schmeling, my father became known as the first African-American sports hero.
After he retired, my father had more time to devote to golf, to which he was drawn because of its parallels to boxing. He appreciated golf’s status as an individual sport that required the same levels of focus and perseverance needed in boxing.
He became a good player – his handicap got down to 3 – and the strength of his game was putting. For such a big man, he had very soft hands and possessed an enviable touch on the greens.
In addition to his celebrated appearance in the 1952 San Diego Open at a time when the tour still had a “Caucasian-only” clause, my father was committed to opening up the game to minorities. He supported other trailblazers, forging wonderful relationships with players like Rhodes, a close friend as well as my father’s instructor.
One of the best players on the United Golfers Association circuit, Rhodes – along with Bill Spiller and Madison Gunther – challenged the PGA’s discriminatory policies. Although Rhodes mostly played UGA tournaments, “Uncle Ted,” as I used to call him, did tee it up at four U.S. Opens and several PGA events.
My father and I enjoyed playing with and learning from great players like Rhodes. But while I appreciated the camaraderie and company of my father’s friends, the moments I cherished most were the rounds when it was just the two of us on the course.
My parents divorced when I was young, and my sister and I saw my father infrequently while we were growing up. During his visits, he would take us to lunch or dinner, but it was difficult to really get to know him. In public settings like restaurants or walking down the street, people would constantly be stopping him for autographs or just to talk.
But on the course, we were able to share a special intimacy created by two people sitting in a golf cart for several hours. During these rounds, he told me about his background, revealed details of his fights and discussed my future.
Having suffered financial difficulties, my father was fond of advising my career with a joke.
“Work for the bank,” he liked to say. “That’s where the money is.” As it turns out, my first job out of college was with a bank.
Although I no longer work for a financial institution, the prominence of golf in our relationship played a role in determining my current position. My father really inspired people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, and his overwhelming desire to help others also influenced me. These qualities were important factors in my decision to join The First Tee, and they now provide inspiration for an organization so driven to help young people develop the confidence to succeed in life.
However, Dad’s generosity didn’t extend to golf matches, and he was just as competitive on the course as he was in the ring. I rarely beat him, but I thought I had a good chance during one of our last rounds together.
He wasn’t as strong or as skilled as he used to be, and we were tied after 15 holes. He clearly realized the situation, and made birdies on two of the last three holes to beat me by two strokes.
I never got to see my father compete for the heavyweight crown. But walking off the 18th green that day, I had an understanding of how opponents would feel after being knocked out by one of the greatest athletes in American history.