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Interesting Golf ‘Firsts’ in The Chicago Defender

By Jacob Levin

| Feb 14, 2022

Heavyweight champ Joe Louis (third from right) was an avid golfer who helped break barriers for top Black golfers of the era. (USGA Museum)

This article is part of a series written by Jacob Levin highlighting the USGA Golf Museum and Library’s African American Golf History Archive: Newspaper Division. Levin, the project’s archivist, is a Ph.D. candidate at American University studying the intersection of sports, religion, race and civil rights in America. The series is inspired by articles from The Chicago Defender, one of two newspapers currently included in the archive. During the early and mid-20th century, The Chicago Defender was the nation’s most influential and widely circulated African-American newspaper.  

Contemporary media coverage can be a powerful tool for researchers. Newspapers and periodicals can shed light on readers’ values and interests on a national or local scale. The following article describes several golf “firsts” for The Chicago Defender, the nation’s most influential and widely circulated African-American newspaper:

Golf in The Chicago Defender: “Odds and Ends of Sport” (July 31, 1909)

The earliest mention of golf in The Chicago Defender appears at the end of a brief sports update column called “Odds and Ends Of Sport.” Published on July 31, 1909, it includes: “The Higgins trophy, offered to teams of the Women’s Western Golf Association, went to the Midlothian Country Club of Chicago…”

In this column, Swiss balloon races, a cross-country trek and the longest baseball game in the history of the American Association are mentioned. The above-quoted sentence at the end of the column refers to a women’s golf organization founded in 1901 that still exists today.

U.S. President and Golf: “President Taft Leads Strenuous Life” (March 25, 1911)

President William H. Taft was the first U.S. president to take up golf, and his relationship with the game was covered by The Chicago Defender as early as 1911. Taft’s physical condition, as well as his obsession with the game, was often a point of public criticism. However, in this article Taft is described as “satisfying” official Washington with his rigorous social and political schedule. Throughout his two terms in office Taft proclaimed the game essential to keeping his weight down, though there was little evidence to that effect. The writer commented that Taft looked “a bit pale from lack of golf and plenty of outdoor exercise.”

New Jersey and Golf: “Golf Course at Atlantic City” (Nov. 20, 1915)

The first mention of the USGA’s home state and golf in The Chicago Defender appeared in an article about plans for a Black-owned golf course near Pleasantville, N.J. The article discusses B.F. Garrison’s plans to oversee the creation of a nine-hole course and clubhouse as well as a café and private baths just a few miles outside Atlantic City. Garrison assured investors “there was sufficient interest in the plans to assure it of financial success” among wealthy African Americans in Philadelphia.

That same year, according to author Lane Demas’ 2017 book, “Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf,” Pleasantville was being scouted as the potential site of the largest all-Black resort on the East Coast. Golf featured heavily on the list of proposed attractions. Though the dream was never realized, African American entertainers visited the town’s dignified homes through the 1940s and its streets are still named DuBois, Howard, Wilburforce and Freeman.  

U.S. Amateur Public Links: “Champions” (Jan. 7, 1927)

As the number of public course golfers and public golf facilities increased dramatically following World War I, the USGA looked to reflect the changing demographics of golf. Created in 1922, the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship (APL) provided an opportunity for public-course players to compete for a national championship. From the start, the APL attracted talented golfers from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds, but Black golfers continued to face discrimination at the highest levels of the game. It was not until the late 1940s that African Americans competed in “modern era” USGA championships. William Wright became the first African American to win a USGA championship in the 1959 APL.

The Chicago Defender’s first mention of the APL, sometimes referred to as the “Publinks” or “National Public Links Championship of America” in the press, occurred in 1927 when Carl Kauffman of Pittsburgh won the championship. That same year, Robert “Pat” Ball was one of the top Black players in the country. He won many United Golfers Association (UGA) tournaments, including the UGA National Championship in 1927, 1929, 1934 and 1941. He briefly ran a miniature golf facility in Chicago before being named the head professional at Palos Park – becoming the first African American pro at a municipal course in U.S. history, according to Demas’ 2017 book.


Joe Louis tees off in The All-American Golf Tournament in 1945. (USGA Museum)

Joe Louis and Golf: “Joe Louis Says Goodbye to Detroit, Ma and Pals” (May 18, 1935)

Joe Louis, the world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, loved golf. He dedicated himself seriously to the game in 1939 and over the next two decades broke barriers as a player, tournament host and sponsor of talented Black golfers.

By 1935 Louis was becoming a media sensation. The Chicago Defender reported that the people of Detroit (his adopted hometown), gifted Louis a set of golf clubs. He took them with him when he departed for New York to face Primo Carnera, the favorite Italian fighter of Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini. Though Carnera was six inches taller and over 60 pounds heavier than him, Louis won the fight.

As World War II loomed, Louis’ successful rematch against Max Schmeling of Germany in 1938 cemented his reputation as an American hero, representing the United States in its fight against fascism. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Louis used his fame and golf talent in efforts to desegregate the game. In 1952, Louis became the first African American to compete in a PGA-sponsored event – nine years before the PGA lifted its “Caucasian-Only” clause.

CONCLUSION: As the global repository for golf’s shared history, the USGA Golf Museum and Library is committed to elevating diverse perspectives. Since 2014, the Museum has pursued the collection and cataloging of all mentions of golf in two of the nation’s longest running and most widely circulated African-American newspapers, the Baltimore Afro-American (1898-1988) and The Chicago Defender (1909-1979). More than 24,000 articles have been captured in the African American Golf History Archive: Newspaper Edition, providing an authentic representation of this critical, but historically underrepresented group in golf history. Due to the breadth of subjects covered, the AANA will serve as a powerful resource for research on race, class, gender, politics, sports, leisure, competition and education in the United States throughout the 20th century. 

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