Golf evolved largely as a country club sport in the United States, and African Americans were barred from most memberships. Early 20th century involvement among African Americans was frequently limited to serving as caddies.

However, a few notable African American golfers, including John Shippen, Althea Gibson, Lee Elder, and Charlie Sifford, found success in golf and demonstrated their mastery of the sport before Tiger Woods’s emergence. John Shippen competed in the second U.S. Open in 1896. Yet integrating golf has been an ongoing battle. Through the 1980s most African Americans involved at the highest levels of the sport were caddies who earned a living working for elite professional athletes and country clubs. Even today African American access to professional and elite country clubs remains limited, and the number of successful African American golfers continues to be small.

Wedge golf club used by Ethel Funches

Wedge golf club used by Ethel Funches

 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Grand Niece Angela Kenion-Wynn in Memory of Ethel P. Funches

The United Golf Association (UGA) was founded in the mid-1920s to provide African American golfers with an opportunity to compete on an organized tour. At the time they were barred from the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) tour. The highlight of the tour was the Negro National Open, which helped spur the growth of African American golf clubs around the country. This event became one of the major African American social events during segregation. Ethel Funches, another early black golf pioneer, was an eight-time UGA national champion.

Trophy awarded to golfer Ethel Funches

Trophy awarded to golfer Ethel Funches

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Grand Niece Angela Kenion-Wynn in Memory of Ethel P. Funches

After Tup Holms was denied access to the Bobby Jones course, he brought a legal suit that eventually reached the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall argued the case, and the Court’s decision in 1955 desegregated the public golf courses in Atlanta. The ruling eventually led to the desegregation of all public places in the city. In 1975, Lee Elder became the first African American to compete at the Masters, a premiere golf tournament also held in Georgia.

A scorecard for the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta, Georgia.

A scorecard for the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta, Georgia.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Carl Seldon

The work of these pioneers paved the way for the emergence of Tiger Woods in the 1990s.  Woods (b. 1975) has the second most major golf tournament victories in history. He has spent more time atop the sport’s rankings than any other competitor, and his dominance in the sport sparked a dramatic increase in golf’s appeal in the United States. Woods’s work with the Tiger Woods Foundation has helped him emerge as one of sport’s most generous philanthropists. Additionally, his public profile and multiracial identity have helped to redefine race in the 21st century.

Golf driver signed by Tiger Woods

Golf driver signed by Tiger Woods

 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

During an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1997, Tiger Woods characterized himself as “Cablinasian”—a combination of Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian. Since then, Tiger has been a symbol of changing ideas about race and the growing recognition of multiracial identities in the United States. During the interview, Winfrey referred to him as “America’s son.”

Off the course, Woods has emerged as a leading philanthropist. The Tiger Woods Foundation is one of the most successful charitable organizations created by an athlete. At the Tiger Woods Learning Center, the foundation focuses on providing educational opportunities to underserved populations through science and math training and scholarships. The foundation has raised more than $80 million to support its efforts since it was established in 1996. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for teens is an important part of the work of the Tiger Woods Foundation.

 

Education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, and we see this every day in the work we do [at the Tiger Woods Foundation.]

TIGER WOODS