CELEBRATING THE GAME
John Merchant, 87: First Black Executive Committee Member March 9, 2020 By David Shefter, USGA

John Merchant was an influential figure for minority golfers. (USGA/Robert Walker)

John Merchant, the first African American to serve on the USGA Executive Committee and a champion for minority causes in the game, died on March 5 in Bridgeport, Conn., at the age of 87 following a long illness.

Serving on the Executive Committee allowed Merchant, a lawyer and civil-rights activist, the opportunity and forum to bring industry leaders together to champion causes for minorities. In 1992, his first year on the Executive Committee, he spent countless hours organizing golf’s first minority golf symposium, whose attendees included Earl Woods and Renee Powell, the second African American woman to compete on the LPGA Tour. The National Minority Golf Foundation was founded in 1995, with Merchant serving as its first executive director.

“John’s passion for justice and equality were evident in all his interactions, and quite simply in the way he lived his life,” said USGA CEO Mike Davis. “It’s no wonder that golf had such an appeal to him, for its values of fairness, equity and sportsmanship echo the same ideals he fought for. Yet he never stopped pushing to make golf a more inclusive game. The USGA was truly honored to have someone as impactful as John Merchant as its first African American board member.”

Being a pioneer on the USGA Executive Committee wasn’t the only benchmark for Merchant, a Greenwich, Conn., native who first played the game while serving in the U.S. Navy. In 1955, a year after the landmark Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Merchant enrolled in the University of Virginia School of Law, and three years later he became its first African American graduate.

Over the next 50 years he gained prominence as a criminal and civil attorney in Connecticut. He established the Walter N. Ridley Scholarship Fund in 1987 to provide financial assistance to black students enrolling at Virginia.

Merchant’s daughter, Susan Beth Merchant, who is now a regional head of compliance at Standard Chartered Bank, became the first child of a black graduate of the law school to graduate from UVA Law in 1994.

In 1962, after firms in his native Greenwich refused to hire him, Merchant moved to Bridgeport, Conn., and formed the state’s first black law firm with L. Scott Melville and E. Eugene Spear, both of whom later became Superior Court judges.

At the time, Merchant, who became a single-digit handicap golfer, was denied the chance to compete in several area tournaments because of his skin color. He became an advocate for minority inclusion.

“You couldn’t get a certified handicap to play in any of the sanctioned events because you had to be a part of the men’s association, and they wouldn’t let blacks join the men’s association,” he said in an interview in the Connecticut Post in 2010.

His words, however, were being heard. Not long after the 1990 controversy involving the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, the USGA and the PGA of America crafted guidelines requiring minority membership at clubs that wished to host their championships. Giles Payne, a prominent Connecticut lawyer, recommended to former USGA president and Nominating Committee member Sandy Tatum that Merchant be appointed to the USGA Executive Committee.

In the fall of 1991, Merchant was nominated and officially joined the Executive Committee at the Association’s Annual Meeting in 1992. Merchant also served as a Rules official at many of the USGA’s biggest championships, including the U.S. Open.

When the National Minority Golf Foundation opportunity became available in 1995, Merchant stepped down from his role on the Executive Committee.

At the same time, Tiger Woods was generating buzz in the golf world as the game’s next potential superstar. Woods was in the midst of winning six consecutive USGA amateur titles and heading toward a groundbreaking professional career. Earl Woods, who had befriended Merchant at the inaugural minority golf symposium, hired him to as an unpaid attorney to represent his uber-talented son. Merchant assisted Woods in securing his lucrative endorsement deal with Nike and hiring his first manager at IMG, Hughes Norton. But after playing an important role in transitioning Woods from decorated amateur to a professional worth millions of dollars, they parted ways in November of 1996.

In 2010, Merchant was inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame.

David Shefter is the USGA’s senior staff writer. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.