The lesser-known history of Althea Gibson the golfer

Bettmann

From 1963 to 1977, LPGA pioneer Althea Gibson played in 171 tournaments but never won.

On Aug. 28, 1963, more than 200,000 people took to the streets of Washington, D.C. The March on Washington aimed to highlight the inequalities African-Americans faced socially and politically in the U.S. It was where the famous speech "I Have a Dream" was delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

That same year, tennis legend Althea Gibson became the first black golfer in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). There is little documentation of Gibson's time in golf, even though she played 171 events between 1963 and 1977. Having never won an event, her time in golf seemed lackluster compared to her tennis career.

The brilliance of her golf career was not based on her results, though. During a time when racial tensions were boiling and when golf courses routinely discriminated against people of color, Gibson made a statement that people's prejudices wouldn't stop her from pursuing her athletic endeavors.

"If I made it, it's half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me," she wrote in her 1958 memoir "I Always Wanted to Be Somebody."

Breaking new barriers


Gibson was born on Aug. 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina. Three years later, she was sent to New York City to live with her aunt Sally. It was on the Harlem River Courts, at 12 years old, that Gibson picked up tennis, finding a natural talent for the sport.

Her love and dedication to tennis paid off when she won the French Open in 1956, becoming the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title. In all, she won 11 Grand Slams before retiring in 1958 and was arguably the most famous female athlete during her time.

AP Photo/Harry Harris

Althea Gibson is shown in New York City on Dec. 12, 1963, after she signed a contract as a golf pro with Dunlop.

Despite her success, tennis was still an amateur sport, so she survived off the generosity of loved ones. In an effort to make money, she recorded several records as a singer and toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing tennis before games.

So the question remains: Where did golf come in? While attending Florida A&M in the early 1950s, Gibson took a golf class, and what she learned during that time stayed with her, according to Rex Miller, who directed "Althea," a PBS American Masters documentary film about the trailblazing athlete.

At 36, Gibson changed course and found herself making history again after earning status to play on the LPGA Tour.

"The siren song of golf was barely audible to me when I retired from amateur tennis," Gibson wrote in "So Much to Live For," her 1968 autobiography. "But it was never completely out of hearing, and soon it was to grow so loud that I would not be able to resist its seductiveness."

While Gibson had support from the LPGA Tour and the players, her time in tennis prepared her for the hardships of playing golf professionally.

There were select clubs, like the Beaumont Country Club in Texas, that allowed Gibson to play but would not allow her into the clubhouse, denying her access to bathrooms and forcing her to change in her car.

Early on in Gibson's golf career, she formed a friendship with fellow tour player Marlene Hagge. While Gibson was checking into a hotel, after calling and confirming her reservation, the hotel said that it neither had her reservation nor any space. Hagge walked into the lobby as Gibson tried to sort out her accommodations and overheard what was taking place. Hagge proceeded to sign in, asked for two keys and turned to Gibson and said, "You're rooming with me."

However, having spent years playing tennis, a sport predominantly for the white and wealthy, this did not phase her.

"She was hardened to things," said Renee Powell, a close friend of Gibson's and the second African-American to qualify for the LPGA in 1967. "Because of the fact that she was in tennis and broke color barriers in tennis, when she went to golf, things didn't bother her. She was focused on playing the game. She wasn't trying to open doors, she was just trying to play [the] game and make a living."

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Renee Powell, pictured with LPGA founder Marilynn Smith, said Althea Gibson opened the door for her when it came to playing in places that had never welcomed a black person before.

While Gibson and Powell received death threats and faced slurs from the galleries, particularly in the South, the LPGA supported them.

Lenny Wirtz, the tournament director for the LPGA in the 1960s, played a pivotal role in creating a more inclusive tour. When host golf courses turned their "open" tournaments into "invitationals" to keep Gibson and Powell out, Wirtz said, 'We all play, or we all stay away.'"

Powell called Wirtz a year before he passed away to find out what the issues were during the time she and Althea played. "When I talked to Lenny he said that the LPGA took a vote with the players about what they thought the tour should do, and they agreed with him that they shouldn't play where everyone wasn't welcomed to play. He also talked to Althea about not making an issue of it, and that he would make it right, and he did."

Gibson's best finish was a second-place tie at the Len Immke Buick Open in Columbus, Ohio, in 1970, where she netted $3,633.75. Over the course of her golf career, she earned $19,250.25, although she was one of the LPGA's top 50 money winners for five years. According to "Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson," she made financial ends meet with various sponsorship deals and the support of her husband, William Darben, whom she married in 1965.

Some believe Gibson's heart was never into golf the way it was into tennis. Overall, she never fully embraced her time as an athlete whose legacy would be rooted in the doors she opened.

She left golf after she was offered a position as a tennis pro near her home. At the time, she told a reporter, "This is where I should have been a year ago."

Inspiring a future generation


The importance of Gibson's golf career cannot be overstated, particularly for the future generations of black female golfers she inspired.

Last year at the LPGA Cambia Portland Classic, for the first time, four African-Americans were in the field: Ginger Howard, Mariah Stackhouse, Sadena Parks and Cheyenne Woods. And now, the LPGA has more African-American players playing on tour than the PGA Tour does.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

LPGA rookie Mariah Stackhouse appreciates the impact Althea Gibson had on the future of golf.

Ginger Howard, who was the seventh African-American to earn her LPGA Tour card in 2016 and the youngest African-American to become a professional golfer at the age of 17, became familiar with Gibson as a junior player.

"When I would get interviewed after tournaments, her name would come up," Howard said. "People would tell me that I was going to make history one day, and I didn't understand what that meant. When I was introduced to that name though, I began doing research. ... I didn't realize I would be one among not even double digits that would qualify for the LPGA." 

When she became aware of Gibson's relationship to golf, Howard recognized that someone had to do it first and that Gibson made things easier for those who followed. "I believe that breaking those barriers was a huge step for us to get out and show what we can do," she said.

LPGA rookie Stackhouse, who became the eighth African-American to earn her tour card, appreciates the impact Gibson had on golf.

"The longer it would have taken for black people to enter the game professionally, the slower the development would have been. Even now that it's not great numbers [the number of African-Americans playing], it's picking up," Stackhouse said.

Gibson's goal was to become somebody, and in her quest to do so, she helped others become somebody, too.

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