June 1, 2021

Spirit of the Game: Althea Gibson, a Multi-Talented Star

From the LPGA archives

In 1963, Althea Gibson, then age 35, became the first African American to play in a U.S. Women’s Open.

She’d miss the cut by a stroke. But Gibson was already a star.

On the tennis court, not only was Gibson a two-time Wimbledon and two-time US Open tennis champion– the first African American to win either–she was the first African American to be ranked the No.1 female player in the world.

She was also an exceptional musician, with a sultry alto voice that earned her a recording contract with Dot Records. She had a successful musical tour that included two appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, all before deciding to give professional golf a whirl.

But as Gibson wrote in her autobiography, “I always wanted to be somebody. It’s why ever since I was a wild arrogant girl in my teens, I played stickball and basketball and baseball and paddle tennis and hung around bowling alleys half the night.”

She also learned to box, initially from her father as a self-defense tactic, since being a streetwise kid in Harlem required certain pugilistic skills. But she would later befriend Sugar Ray Robinson, a relationship that eventually propelled her to become the New Jersey Athletic Commissioner and in charge of all boxing matches in the state.

Former U.S. and Wimbledon tennis champion Althea Gibson, poses with golf clubs she is using at Englewood, N.J. Country Club in her attempt to conquer a new sport. August, 8, 1962. (Copyright unknown/Courtesy USGA Museum)

Hers was an extraordinary life, filled with the kinds of renaissance achievements about which songs would have been written in centuries past. She did have one song, ‘So Much To Live For’, written by her vocal coach, that was biographical. It appeared on her album Althea Gibson Sings, which was released in 1959.

So she took up golf under the tutelage of Jerry Volpe at Englewood Golf Club in New Jersey. Volpe was a local legend who gave lessons to many celebrities, including Ed Sullivan and Mickey Mantle, the former of whom never became much of a player and the latter who had a single-digit handicap. Volpe was appalled by how little money Althea had earned as the best female tennis player in the world, so he gave her an honorary membership at Englewood (she was the club’s first black member) and encouraged her to give the LPGA Tour a whirl.

“I joined the Tour in 1967 and Althea was already on the Tour, having joined in 1963,” Renee Powell, the LPGA Tour’s second African American player, recalled. “Althea was the first black female out there. She came with such a great name and had done so many incredible things. She was an American hero. But being a minority, being an African American in the field of golf, you were certainly going to run up against obstacles. Althea had to fight so many battles, but she was also a gentle person.”

In golf, Gibson found many allies. She joined the LPGA Tour just two years after the PGA of America eliminated the “Caucasian Only” clause from its bylaws. But according to Powell, “There were never any discriminatory practices on the LPGA Tour. We were welcomed by the players. Sometimes the clubs that hosted the events weren’t as accommodating but the players could not have been more welcoming.

“At that time, some of the tournaments were called invitationals,” Powell said. “That meant they could invite everybody on the tour if they wanted but they didn’t have to invite who they didn’t want to invite. And they didn’t have to invite Althea. But our tournament director, Lenny Wirtz, took a stand and so did the officers of the LPGA (which included Mickey Wright) at the time. They sent a clear message: either everybody played, or nobody played.”

“Althea came and stayed with me here in the (California) desert for a while,” LPGA Founder Shirley Spork said. “We had the Bob Hope Classic going on and she came out to our course at Indian Wells where I taught. She mingled with the other athletes, and the professional golfers who knew who she was as a tennis player, not a golfer. She was recognized for tennis, not for golf. But she was trying to be an athlete in another sport after being at the top of her sport. And she chose golf.”

Not only did the players never consider Gibson’s race an issue, most did whatever they could to support her. At one event, when she was forced to change her shoes in the parking lot because she wasn’t invited into the clubhouse, all the players changed in their cars in solidarity with her.

“We viewed her as a positive,” Spork said. “She didn’t really have the game to compete. She had the desire, and she was a very good athlete, but she wasn’t trained enough and hadn’t played golf long enough to be very successful.”

Still, from 1963 through 1977, Gibson made 171 LPGA Tour starts.

Gibson made one more stab at golf in 1980, returning to LPGA Tour Q School at age 53. She failed to advance.

Four years later, she was honored during the centennial celebration of The Matches at Wimbledon where she strode to center court with a confident gate and beaming smile. Just a couple of months earlier, Gibson had regained her amateur status from the USGA. She would enjoy the game and all who played it for the remainder of her life.