She was 36 years old when she made her first LPGA Tour start, stirring the golf world in profound ways and revealing a strength of character, not only of herself but within all those pioneering women scratching out a living in golf in 1963.
Althea Gibson was already a star when she became the first African American player to join the LPGA Tour the same month that George Wallace became governor of Alabama by promising, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” 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 No.1 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.
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.
But outside of hardcore tennis and golf fans, few people even remember Althea’s name. Ask most amateur tennis players – and even a few of the younger professionals – to come up with the first African American major champion and the answer will either be one of the Williams sisters (Venus or Serena) or, for those who really think they know their history, Arthur Ashe. But Althea beat them all. She won the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 and the U.S. Championship in 1957 and 1958. At the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Queen Elizabeth presented Althea with the Venus Rosewater Dish and Richard Nixon presented Althea with her two U.S. Open trophies at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y.
“We stood at attention and waited as Queen Elizabeth walked gracefully out onto the court,” Gibson wrote in her book. “‘Congratulations,’ she said, ‘It must have been terribly hot out there.’…Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina.”
“Everything was white – the balls, the clothes, the socks, the shoes, the people, everything,” Billie Jean King said of the tennis world when Althea broke through. “She just wanted to play. She was just saying, ‘Let me be one of you.’ Unfortunately, in the 1950s, it just wasn’t that easy. But everyone could feel her presence. She would walk into a room and you could feel her.”
Feel was what made Gibson both an outstanding tennis player and golfer. Most courts in New York were white only so she learned to play at night, hitting volleys by the dim glow of streetlights or the ambient hue from apartment windows. She learned where the lines were by feel because once her shots crossed the net, she couldn’t see them.
Eventually, she walked away from tennis because, as great as she was, she couldn’t make a living. “I had plenty of cups and silver but not a lot of bread,” she said of those days.
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, Althea 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 Althea’s race an issue, most did whatever they could to support her. At one event, when Althea 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, Althea made 171 LPGA Tour starts.
“She was a singer, an entertainer, she could really sing,” Spork said. “And she was well liked by the players, accepted by the players. She was a Wimbledon tennis champion, so the gallery would come to see her try to play golf. That was an asset for us because she was a tennis star. Having her out there helped us go forward, to gain more galleries and gain more interest in getting sponsors.”
Althea 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, Althea had regained her amateur status from the USGA. She would enjoy the game and all who played it for the remainder of her life.