Although underrepresented in today’s professional ranks, Black golfers have made many contributions to the game since the PGA Tour lifted its “Caucasians only” rule in 1961. Over the past 60 years, these individuals have defined what it means to overcome adversity and excel on the golf course, regardless of the social and political issues surrounding the sporting world. If you’re a fan of the game, discover more about famous black golfers throughout history and how the shaped the game.
Male or female, present-day or historical, African-American golfers have made plenty of strides toward equality in professional golf. From breaking the color barrier to winning golf tournaments despite the odds, these individuals have earned a spot in the pantheon of professional golfing greats — not just for Black golfers, but the sport as a whole.
No list of famous black golfers is complete without Tiger Woods. Breaking into the professional ranks in 1996 at age 20, Tiger Woods found almost instant success. In 1997, he became the youngest winner of The Masters and the first Black golfer to win a major, donning the Green Jacket at Augusta National at just 21 years old.
And that was just the beginning.
Over the past 25-plus years, Woods has taken home 15 championships — second only to Jack Nicklaus — and 82 PGA Tour event wins — tied with Sam Snead for the most in PGA history. He’s defined the game of golf, inspired multiple generations of youngsters to pick up a golf club, created a personal brand, is a huge reason for the success of Nike Golf and the TW brand, recognized across the globe, and become arguably the greatest professional golfer of all time.
Calvin Peete is another famous black golfer that’s a lesson in perseverance and overcoming adversity. Born to a poor family in Rochester, New York, Peete was a self-taught golfer who would play on the local public course after selling wares to local migrant workers. Shockingly, he suffered a broken arm as a youth, which was never properly set, requiring him to alter his golf swing from traditional norms.
Despite never having a lesson, Peete became a pro golfer in 1971, and eventually joined the PGA Tour in 1975, even without a sponsor. In the early 1980s, he was a stalwart on the tour, finishing in the top five of the PGA money list, as well as top-five finishes at the PGA Championship in 1982 and the U.S. Open in 1983.
To cap it off, he earned the Vardon Trophy in 1984 by having the lowest scoring average of any player in American golf, two appearances on the U.S. Ryder Cup Team, and 12 PGA tour wins — the most of any black golfer not named Tiger Woods — cementing his status as one of the best golfers of his era.
Perhaps one of the most influential black golfers of all time, Lee Elder was born into poverty in Dallas after his father was killed during WWII. After moving around as a youth, his family settled in Los Angeles in the mid-40s. Despite being enrolled in school, Elder would consistently cut class to work as a caddie at a local country club.
His skill on the links was noticed by Gary Player, who invited him to join the South African PGA Tour in 1971. Just three years later, he became a member of the PGA of America, winning the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida, en route to four tour wins over his career and eight on the Senior PGA Tour.
He was the first golfer to break the color barrier at the 1979 edition of The Masters, and although missing the cut, went down in Masters folklore for showing up at the even dressed completely in green.
Following his retirement, Elder became an outspoken voice against racism in the sport and across the rest of American and South African societies. He also set up scholarship funds and charities along the way with the help of his wife, who he met at one of his first golf tournaments in Washington, D.C.
Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1990, Harold Varner III is one of the more recognized and famous black golfers on the PGA Tour today. As one of only four black golfers currently on the PGA Tour, he’s participated in three out of four majors, as well as a tie for sixth during the 2022 PGA Players Championship.
Ted Rhodes was a prominent force in ending segregation on the PGA Tour. Born in 1913, he became a professional golfer under the tutelage of pro golfer Ray Mangrum, participating in the 1948 U.S. Open — albeit without being part of the PGA Tour.
Due to discrimination he faced during his career, Rhodes sued the PGA Tour for its discriminatory practices. However, a loophole allowed the PGA Tour to change its tournament formats to invitationals, allowing segregation to continue on the tour.
Because of this rule implemented by the PGA until 1961, Rhodes competed in United Golf Association (UGA) events throughout the course of his career, winning over 150 times, although the purse money was pennies on the dollar compared to the PGA Tour.
Today, his legacy remains as part of his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, at Ted Rhodes Golf Course — a course dedicated to his unwavering determination and battle against discrimination.
With money from boxing great Joe Louis and White players who found the “Caucasian-only” ban to be discriminatory, Bill Spiller broke the color barrier of professional golf when he played at the 1948 Los Angeles Open. He showed up to play at the 1948 Richmond Open in Richmond, California, only to be told he was not allowed to play.
Along with Ted Rhodes, he filed a lawsuit against the PGA Tour, paving the way for the ban against Black players to be lifted in 1961. However, it was far too late for him to embark on a successful PGA career.
He was still able to win over 100 UGA events over his career and remains one of the most famous black golfers in the history of the sport.
Widely regarded as the Jackie Robinson of the PGA Tour, Sifford became the first black golfer to play on the PGA Tour when he joined the tour in 1961 following the lift of the “Caucasians-only” ban.
Known for his perpetual love of the game and a giant cigar that would always hang out of his mouth, Sifford won two PGA Tour events in his career, culminating with a PGA Seniors’ Championship in 1975.
Although known for her prowess as a tennis pro and the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam event, Gibson eventually turned to the pro ranks of golf toward the end of her athletic career. She joined the LPGA in 1964, and immediately became a force on the tour.
During this time, she faced discrimination at almost every turn. Tournaments in the South wouldn’t let her compete, she often had trouble finding hotels that would accommodate Black people, and she was barred from many clubhouses, forcing her to get dressed in her car. Despite these setbacks, she was able to win five events and had career earnings of over $25,000.
Born in East Canton, Ohio, in 1946, Renee Powell was the second Black woman to join the LPGA Tour, doing so in 1967. Shockingly, she received death threats for her inclusion on the tour, but never wavered in her determination or considered quitting.
Although she only had one LPGA tournament victory, she went on to become a professional golf instructor, and today, she runs Clearview Golf Course in Ohio, where she remains the club’s onsite golf pro.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1879, Shippen is widely regarded as the first professional golfer born in the United States, as many pro golfers in the early 20th century were actually born in Europe. At the age of 16, he became an assistant golf pro at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, eventually giving lessons to white players — an oddity for late 19th century. He was eventually invited to play at the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills — the first Black player to do so.
During the 1896 U.S. Open — the second U.S. Open ever — pro golfers protested Black players, but relented when the USGA president threatened to hold the tournament with Shippen as the only player. After his professional career, Shippen began to make his own golf clubs, which hold substantial value and remain as a relic of one of the most famous Black golfers ever.
Hopefully, this list piqued your interest about the black golfers that helped to end segregation while playing a sport that they loved. If you want to learn more about these legendary linksman, the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida, now has an exhibit dedicated to the African-American players that changed the game. Alternatively, you can visit the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in Atlanta, Georgia, which has exhibits on over 100 Black golfers.
With more information about these famous black golfers and the battles they faced, you can understand how discrimination shaped the game with the hope that it never repeats itself again.