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Lady Pioneers

Harlem-Raised Althea Gibson Dominated Tennis and Turned to Golf

Althea Gibson overcame racist and sexist barriers to become one of the most famous athletes in the world.

tennis and golf pioneer Althea Gibson
Credit: Getty Images

As we celebrate Women’s Golf Month in June, we’d like to acknowledge pivotal African American female pioneers to play the game.

The first African American tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in the world; the first African American to compete in the once-segregated U.S. Open, and later winner of one French Open, two U.S. Opens, and two Wimbledons, Harlem-raised Althea Gibson gained worldwide fame in tennis as a fierce competitor. After becoming the first Black Wimbledon winner in history in 1957, she was accorded a ticker-tape parade in New York City, becoming just the second African American to be honored in that manner, after Jesse Owens.

What is lesser known, is the fact that she excelled in golf as well.

She was one of the most famous athletes in the world, but despite her great success on the tennis court, she struggled financially. It must be remembered that tennis then was still an amateur sport, so she had to survive essentially off the generosity of family, friends and fans. In an effort to make money, toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing tennis before their games. After a year with the Globetrotters, she tried singing. She recorded several records as a singer and even sang on The Ed Sullivan Show. But a record deal went nowhere. She even appeared in a movie with John Wayne, “The Horse Soldiers.”

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Althea still wasn’t able to make a living, so in 1960, she turned to a sport she’d picked up at a class at Florida A&M: golf.

Tennis and Golf star Althea Gibson

Courtesy Whyy

“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.”

Her strength was as a really long hitter with a rather low ball fight that would often run. While she broke course records during individual rounds in several tournaments, Gibson’s highest ranking was 27th in 1966, and her best tournament finish was a tie for second after a three-way playoff at the 1970 at the Len Immke Buick Open, Althea’s short game and putting came up short. Although she was one of the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for five years, and won a car at a Dinah Shore tournament, according to “Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson,” she could only make financial ends meet with a few sponsorship deals and the support of her husband.

Fame did not shield Gibson from suffering through racism in her time as a pro golfer. The 60s were a turbulent time. There were some clubs that would not accept her, mostly in the South. One example was in 1965 at Beaumont Country Club for the Babe Zaharias Classic tournament. They would allow her to play the course but not enter the clubhouse, even for using the bathroom and forcing her to change in her car.

Althea Gibson golfing

Getty Images

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 black players out, Wirtz said, ‘We all play, or we all stay away.’”

And the members of the LPGA voted unanimously in support of Wirtz that if a sponsor or a club would not take all of them, they wouldn’t get any of them. So the LPGA players stood ground for a fellow athlete of color.

But staying on tour is expensive and Gibson struggled with traveling expenses and training expenses and after a 13-year career, she accepted a position as a tennis pro near her home in New Jersey.

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Credit: Getty Images

Gradually she became even more reclusive and after years of financial and health problems, Althea died of respiratory failure in 2003.

Gibson came along during a difficult time in golf, gained the support of a lot of people, and quietly made a difference particularly for the future generations of black female golfers she inspired.

In 2016 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.

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