Hidden Pioneer

Thelma Cowans Blazed A Trail For Black Women Golfers

There is no shadow without a light. There are people and things that exist, and though we may not pay attention to them or recognize them at first, they are still there, playing their own role in life. These hidden figures are like missing pieces from the greater puzzle of history. The more we find out, the better able we are to understand the story.

We vehemently celebrate the 13 courageous women who founded the LPGA and the way they created a separate sphere where women could be appreciated on our own merits. But there are forgotten founders - women who were on the margins, left out of a many competitive outlets because of their race. How can we truly celebrate women in golf if we’re not including all women?

"The double eagle is the rarest score in golf. This is the term I use to express the presence of the rare African American woman golfer. As a rarity among the rare, she is the most unknown and silent athlete in the arena of this sport. The African American woman is really an omission in the annals of the history of golf in America." --M. Mikell Johnson, The African American Women Golfer: Her Legacy

In the 1880s, golf began to boom in the U.S. Courses sprang up from the grassy hills of the Northeast and lakeside plains of the Midwest, capturing the attention of black and white people alike. The popularization of golf and the beginning of the Jim Crow Era are almost parallel in time, meaning that black golfers never really stood a chance. Elitist and racist undertones echoed in both golf and American society. This is quite evident when the PGA was established in 1916, with their infamous ‘Caucasian Clause’ (which was lifted in 1961).

This clause spurred the establishment of the United Golfers Association (UGA) nine years later in 1925. This organization wasn’t perfect either. It was primarily for Black men, who wanted to gain more accessibility in golf. Women, especially black women, at this time had no space to call their own in the game. Eventually, the UGA would open their events to Black women. Women who had lives before they were golf champions, but they cemented themselves into history, one stroke at a time.

“Many talented women were excluded from the UGA but were encouraged to play golf. This benevolent affront by their own men, mostly husbands, did not alleviate the frustration of the women golfers. In 1937, two major women’s golf clubs were formed: The Wake Robin Golf Club and the Chicago Women’s Golf Club.” – Thelma Louise Simmons

A daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a realtor, a newspaper columnist, putting coach to the great Charlie Sifford, and a champion golfer. That’s who Thelma Louise Simmons, or Thelma Cowans, was. A true renaissance woman, who deserved a seat at the table. All too often, Black women leave this earth without receiving their flowers. We are decades late, but Mrs. Cowan, here are your flowers.

Born in Eatonton, Georgia in 1912 to Sid and Carrie Simmons, Thelma was one of eight children. It is lost on no historian that the most famous son of her hometown was Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the Uncle Remus novels.

In 1922, the Simmons family would up and move to Detroit, but Thelma wouldn’t forget her Georgia roots.

At age 15, Thelma would marry her first husband, Charles Lorenzo McTyre. The two had a son and a daughter, but the marriage would end in 1936. There isn’t much on Thelma’s early life beyond her family life, until she picked up a club.

The 1940s were a time of cultural change. The world was at war for a second time. Men were preparing to leave their families and women would find themselves in the workforce and enjoying it. The Golden Age of Hollywood had the nation enthralled with glamor, depictions of the American Dream in motion pictures. So much was going on, and people longed for something to give them peace of mind. Thelma was anemic, and her doctor had suggested that she pick up golf -- claiming that the fresh air would make her strong. The course of Thelma’s life and golf history would be changed forever.

Thelma fell in love with the game, and so did her sister Theresa. She and her sister would return to Georgia, where they attended Morris Brown College in Atlanta. The duo would go on to establish a golf team there and organize tournaments where other black women would compete. One year, Thelma won the Southern Intercollegiate Women’s Championship held in Tuskegee, Alabama. Theresa finished second. This began a long on-course rivalry between the sisters. Theresa often got her revenge, just as in the 1945 Forest City tournament in Cleveland, Ohio, where Theresa won, beating Thelma.

Thelma was a fierce competitor and in 1947, she won her first national amateur title in the UGA Championship in Philadelphia-- a title she would win four more times in ‘49, ‘54, ‘55, and ‘56. However, there was drama surrounding her win in ‘56. Once again held in Philly at Cobbs Creek Golf Club, the home course of Charlie Sifford, the tournament began promptly at six o’clock in the morning. Thelma’s opponent, Alma Arvin, showed up on time and had played nine holes before Thelma arrived. By UGA rules, Thelma should have been disqualified.

“The UGA Rules clearly state that any player who is late for a match automatically forfeits the match. In this case, the UGA Rules Committee reneged and deemed the original match null and void,” Thelma remembered. The women started over and Thelma won the match 1-up on Arvin, who graciously conceded a title that was rightfully hers. However, due to the rule book fumble by the UGA, Thelma had solidified herself as a champion golfer and one of the best in her generation.

But before the drama, the winning, and the glory of rubbing shoulders with people like champion boxer Joe Lewis, Thelma married (1945) and divorced (1949) husband Russell Cowans. She took his name and kept it for the rest of her life. Russell was a devoted golf fan and writer for the Detroit Tribune. He often wrote about Thelma and her accomplishments, even after the divorce. 

After their split, Thelma moved to Los Angeles where she became a realtor and the first black member of El Rancho Golf Club. In LA, Thelma met and played with up-and-coming golfers Lee Elder and Charlie Sifford. Sifford credited Cowans for helping him with his putting.

Thelma Cowans seemed like the kind of woman who lived eight or nine different lives in her 77 years. She, like so many other black women, had to fight for every ounce of success she earned. Her dramatic debacle at the UGA championship in ‘56 is less about someone who was inconsiderate and more about someone who was willing to bet on themselves and win. It’s unfortunate that it came at the expense of another Black woman who was just as deserving, but we must ask ourselves why it was necessary for those women to tee it up at the crack of dawn in the first place.

Thelma continued her golf career with her sister, Theresa, back in Detroit through the 1960s, even after the establishment of the LPGA, which chose to be desegregated from the charter. Thelma never played in an LPGA-sanctioned event. Her son-in-law speculated that she would have been the first black woman on the tour.

She was cemented as a Detroit legend until the day she passed in February 1990. She was a member of the Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame in Detroit and The UGA Hall of Fame.

She was a remarkable woman with a remarkable story -- a story that should never die. To Act Like a Founder means recognizing those that came before us and understanding the sacrifices that it took to get us to this point in time. Thelma Cowans, and so many other Black women, would often risk their safety for the sake of being able to play golf. That should never be taken lightly.