The United Golf Association is best known as the all-Black golf tour that launched the careers of Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder during a time when the PGA’s Caucasian Only Clause barred them from competing on the PGA Tour. Yet the UGA also had a woman’s division and the best of them for years was Ann Gregory, a Gary, Indiana amateur whom the Black press hailed as “The Queen of Negro Women’s Golf.”
At the 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur, Gregory became the first Black woman to compete in a USGA championship. In her first-round match at the Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis, she lost 2-1 to Carolyn Cudone, a Curtis Cup team member, and later a five-time winner of the U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur.
"My husband said I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell," said the 44-year-old Gregory after the match. "I guess I fooled him."
Gregory earned eligibility to play at Meridian Hills when her club, the Chicago Women’s Golf Association (CWGA), became, in 1956, the first Black organization to join the USGA. As a mother and wife of a U.S. Steel worker, she’d taken up golf through the CWGA and quickly become one of the top women players on the UGA. Between 1950 and 1970, she won five UGA National Championships. With six titles, only Ethel Funches won more UGA national titles over this period than Gregory.
While Gregory’s husband, Perry Gregory, spurred her initial interest in the game, it wasn’t until she watched LPGA co-founders Patty Berg and Betty Jameson in a match in 1945 that she became interested in tournament golf. After taking a handful of lessons, she began a career that lasted up until her death in 1990 at the age of 77.
The U.S. Women’s Amateur was always one of the most important tournaments on her schedule. “I’ve got big eyes on that national title,” she told the Tulsa Tribune in 1960. “If I could manage to win I think it would be a dual victory—one for me personally as a golfer and one for the Negro race.”
The Aberdeen, Mississippi native, who grew up in a Jim Crow South that severely limited the rights of African Americans, sought throughout her career dual victories for herself and her race. A civic leader in Gary, she was instrumental in desegregating the city’s 18-hole public golf course in the early 60s. “My tax dollars are taking care of the big course and there’s no way you can bar me from it,” she told the clubhouse attendant at the South Gleason Park course. The club let her play.
In her relentless pursuit to play the game she loved Gregory never let racism derail her ambitions to compete in elite tournaments. At the 1963 U.S. Women’s Amateur in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Gregory was ordered by another player, who mistook her for a maid, to find some coat hangers in the locker room. Instead of admonishing the player for only seeing the color of her skin and not recognizing that she had on golf clothes, Gregory gave the woman the hangers and they later had a good laugh about it.
“Racism is only in your mind,” Gregory once said. “It’s something that you overlook or you look at it.”
When Gregory was barred from attending the player’s dinner during the 1959 U.S. Women’s Amateur at the Congressional Country Club, she took it in stride, saying: “I didn’t feel bad. They were letting me play golf, so I got me a hamburger and went to bed.”
Her life is the focus of Playing Through, a 2022 fictional movie, written by Curtis Jordan, whose mother Josephine Knowlton “Dadie” Jordan played Gregory in a second-round match during the ‘59 Amateur. The movie contrasts Jordan, a southern white woman, with Gregory, a southern-born Black woman who had left the Deep South for better opportunities in the North. In the real match at Congressional, the same club that had denied her access to the player’s dinner, Gregory rallied from 2-down to square the match going into the 18th hole, where she prevailed for a 1 up victory. She lost her third-round match and would never win a Women’s Amateur title. However, she did have a runner-up finish at the 1971 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, where she lost by a stroke to her old rival Cudone at the Sea Island (Ga.) Resort.
Playing Through is a vivid reminder of Gregory’s enduring legacy and the obstacles she faced as a pioneering Black female golfer in the middle of the 20th Century. Renee Powell, herself a pioneer in women’s golf as the second Black woman to play the LPGA Tour, has said that Gregory set the stage for every other Black female golfer that came behind her. Today, Gregory is not as well-known as her white female golf contemporaries like Berg, Jameson, Babe Zaharias, Louise Suggs, but in her own way she was as equally important as they were in the early days in creating momentum and notoriety for women’s golf.