Note: This story was written by Rhonda Glenn and originally appeared on usga.org on Feb. 8, 2006.
Althea Gibson's Second Act
February 9, 2018
In thinking of Caretta Scott King, who died Jan. 30 as one of the last heroic figures of some of the most tumultuous times this country has endured, another great and graceful woman comes to mind.
Althea Gibson was famous for her amateur tennis career, during which she won one French, two Wimbledon and two U.S. singles titles in the pre-Open era, as well as doubles victories in all four Grand Slam events. Few remember that, in 1963, Gibson took up another challenge when she joined the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
As a young amateur who occasionally played in LPGA events, I first met Gibson in the snack bar of Delray Beach Country Club the day before the Louise Suggs Invitational began. I was introduced as a contestant and, accurately, as an announcer at a small Florida radio station.
“Oh, yeah?” Gibson said with a sunny grin.
I was suddenly a person of interest and she gracefully folded her long, lean body into a chair at my table. “I've got a new album out,” she said. “I sing and play the guitar. You ought to play it on your station.”
My little group of stolid golfers all smiled. Gibson’s childlike swagger was as out of place as if a bright balloon had floated to our table. Her boastfulness amused me. It was if Babe Zaharias had suddenly settled in our midst. But in the 1960s, even the greatest female athletes received few financial rewards and it wasn’t hard to guess that she struggled to make a living. She had to hustle, so she wrote down my address and later sent the album.
That spring, I was paired with her in the Raleigh (N.C.) Invitational. Announced on the first tee with great fanfare, she just looked like somebody important. Impressively tall at 5 feet, 11 inches and beautifully dressed, Gibson literally gleamed.
She took a tremendous cut at the ball, it rocketed off the clubface, and she held her finish a little too long, a showbiz touch that made me smile. She was pleasant to play with and generous in her praise of a good shot, but totally involved in what she was trying to do.
While it’s hard to imagine today, Gibson’s stature as a world-class athlete swelled the LPGA gate by only a couple of hundred fans. But she cheerfully signed autographs and chatted with spectators, and was popular enough among the players that she was regularly invited to play in their poker games. Being a high-profile African-American woman in 1960s America, however, was no tea party.
In the early part of the decade, LPGA vice president Barbara Romack had to take over for president Shirley Englehorn when Englehorn was forced to the sidelines after injuries suffered in an automobile accident. One of Romack’s earliest duties was highly unpleasant.
“We played several tournaments in the South,” said Romack. “There was a lot of racial unrest in the country and the sponsors of two of our tournaments were afraid that if Althea played, there would be trouble. They told me to tell her that she couldn’t play that year.”
Romack and Gibson were friends, but Romack was unsure of how Gibson might react. “I felt terrible going up to this great champion and saying ‘They suggest that you don't play,’”said Romack. “But I told her that they wanted her to play next year. She said, ‘I understand. I don’t want to cause any trouble. I just want to play golf.’ She did not play that year, but the following year she played in both tournaments and the tournament chairmen each invited her to stay in their homes, which she did.”
Surely there were other unpleasant racial incidents, but Gibson took the high road and never publicly complained. From 1963-1977, she played in 171 LPGA tournaments, but never won. When she could no longer compete, she struggled. In 1975, she was named New Jersey’s commissioner of athletics, a fortuitous job that provided financial relief for a few years.
Late in life, she refused all interviews, suffered from serious health problems, including a stroke, and died in humble circumstances on Sept. 28, 2003 at the age of 76.
Although humility wasn’t one of her strengths, Gibson had a powerful dignity and perseverance. She was continuously striving for excellence. She achieved goals in an era of difficulties that few of us can ever know. Some 50 years ago, Gibson – up from paddle tennis in Harlem – covered a tennis court with the awesome grace and power of a lioness.
She was somewhat less than that on a golf course. Walking down a fairway as if leaning slightly into the wind, her brow furrowed in concentration and worry, she paused to take careful practice swings but lacked the easy grace of a Mickey Wright or Suggs. While the athleticism was there, she was so new to the game, and so raw, that she never came close to achieving what she had in tennis. Gibson, however, had the courage to tee it up in public, despite her lack of experience and training. She entered the arena and it is Gibson’s striving that we celebrate today.
And her light.