Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Average Golfer: Black History Month - Theodore "Rags" Rhodes

Upon winning the 1997 Masters Tiger Woods declared, "I am the first minority to win here, but I wasn't the first to play. That was Lee Elder, and my hat's off to him and Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes, who made this possible for me." One day after Rhodes' death in 1969, Lee Elder was even more lavish in his praise. "Whatever had happened to me in big time golf, and whatever success I attain eventually, I owe to Ted Rhodes."

Rhodes emerged from the starkest of beginnings. He worked as a caddie at Nashville's Belle Meade Country Club where he wasn't allowed to play golf. His nickname, "Rags", grew from his penchant for flashy clothes and neat appearance. Whenever he found the chance he'd sneak on the course to play, or hit balls at a local baseball stadium with the other caddies.

Rhodes was discharged from the Navy after serving in WWII and found himself landing in Chicago. He made friends with boxer Joe Louis and entertainer Billy Eckstein. They in turn sponsored Rhodes in the LA Open and Canadian Open. He taught Louis the game of golf and hung with Charlie Sifford. He and Sifford became two of the first African American members of the PGA. Rhodes is remembered as being the rough equal of the time's white players, and would have competed well on the pro tour, if given the chance.

In 1948 Rhodes was forced into an epic battle with the PGA for the right to participate in it's tournaments. He finished 21st in the field of 66 at the LA Open, held at Riviera Country Club. That qualified him for the Richmond, (Calif.), Open later in January. Rhodes entry into the tourney was denied by the PGA citing their "Caucasians only" clause. Rhodes and two other black golfers sued the PGA for $315,000 on the grounds that they were denied an opportunity to make a living in their profession. While waiting for the court date Rhodes had his entry into the US Open at Riviera accepted by the USGA. He opened with a -1, 7o, but gradually faded in the tournament won by Ben Hogan.

The following September, as the case was ready to be heard, the PGA reversed field and said they would stop banning black golfers. They were allowed to play in PGA events if they were invited by the tournament sponsors. This led to 1949, where after a great year on the United Golf Association tour, a tour for blacks, he entered the PGA event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. PGA secretary George Schneiter informed him that his invitation had been sent by mistake, therefore reinstating the racist policies that the tour never really dropped. The PGA screwed him again by turning down his entry into the San Diego Open. The resulting controversy was so widespread that Joe Louis was invited to play.

In 1961 the PGA finally dropped it's "Caucasian only" clause for good. Rhodes was 48 and his best golf was behind him. He became a teaching pro and mentored the likes of Lee Elder, Althea Gibson and Ann Gregory. He died in Nashville in 1969 at 53 years of age.

Truly a pioneer. Professional golf's African American presence is still tiny, but the ones that have made it are standing on Ted Rhodes' shoulders.

Til' next,


  1. I think what Tiger has done for the game is going to and already has affected the feelings of African-Americans toward playing golf. I'm looking forward to watching "Uneven Fairways" next week..

  2. I don't see much direct effect. Woods is still the only African-American, sort of, on tour. Regardless of the 1st Tee's efforts I don't see many minority kids playing at the local muni. Access has a lot to do with it. Still, Mr. Woods has had a large impact with his foundation and learning centers. Just not necessarily golf related, which is fine.