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.