Unique Legacy Of Black Golf In Seattle

Small club produced champions and hosted teenage Tiger Woods.

SEATTLE, WA – When 23-year old Bill Wright won the United States Golf Association (USGA) Public Links Championship in 1959, he became the first Black golfer to win the prestigious title. In 1960, he made history again, as the first Black golfer to win the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Golf Championship while attending Western Washington University.

Now, more than 60 years later, and two and a half years after Wright’s death at 84, efforts are underway to convince the city of Seattle to rename Jefferson Park Golf Course in his honor.

Wright, like fellow Seattle native Fred Couples, grew up playing golf at the urban public course that sits atop Beacon Hill, overlooking the city. Opened in 1915, Jefferson Park became the acknowledged home of Black and minority golfers, in spite of the policies that prohibited them from membership in the city public golf clubs.

While they were allowed to play at the city courses, minority golfers could not compete in tournaments, regardless of ability, because membership in a recognized club was required to obtain a USGA handicap.

Bill Wright was introduced to the game of golf by his parents, Bob and Madeline. They were part of a racially-mixed group of golfers who joined forces in 1947 to form Fir State Golf Club, in response to closed-door, exclusionary rules of the city clubs. Fir State was established to combat those racist policies and, at the same time, to promote access to golf within the minority community.

After years of lobbying and lawsuits, city golf club memberships opened to all in 1952.

An important part of the club’s mission was to stimulate interest and participation of young people in the game, and Bill Wright was one of the club’s first junior golf program participants.

In 1954, Fir State became one of eight charter members of Western States Golf Association (WSGA), which now includes 33 predominantly Black golf clubs in seven western states and more than 1,300 adult and junior members.

In 1977, 51 Fir State members contributed $100 each toward the purchase of a small home that served as their clubhouse, located on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, in the heart of the community. This little clubhouse stood as a source of pride and is a major part of the Fir State history and legacy. Its sale several years ago has provided the club with a sustainable financial future.

Current Fir State Golf Club President Berdell Knowles, Jr., stresses the importance of keeping the story alive and reminding people of the overwhelming odds Wright faced and overcame.

“To be clear, we’re in a unique moment in time,” said Knowles. “America has had to take a really hard look at what the black community has accepted for a long time. We’re finally taking some corrective steps as a country, and momentum has spilled over to the Seattle community.”

Knowles believes one of those “corrective steps” is to commemorate a more inclusive history, in which Bill Wright’s accomplishments are celebrated and shared with future generations. It’s part of Fir State’s commitment to “Investing in Our Future Through Golf” while also honoring the past.

Robert “Woody” Woodard, former club president and current junior program co-director, was the visionary behind arguably the club’s most significant event, one whose impact is still felt today. In 1992, he invited a skinny, 16-year old golf phenom named Tiger Woods and his father, Earl, to host a tournament at Jefferson Park to raise funds for the club’s junior program. Woods had just won his second of three USGA Junior Amateur Championships and the buzz around him was growing louder.

That inaugural event (Woods shot a course record 67) became the annual Fir State Celebrity Challenge Tournament, hosted over the following 20 years by Ken Griffey, Sr., Birdie Griffey, Mike Cameron, Dale Ellis, Nate McMillan, and Bruce King. It enabled the club to establish the 501(c)3 Fir State Junior Golf Foundation, provide instruction to hundreds of kids, and even offer financial support for junior golfers pursuing higher education.

The Fir State junior golfers who followed in Bill Wright’s footsteps continued to achieve a number of historic titles – Landon Jackson and Jet Singh were FSGC’s first juniors to be awarded full scholarships by the National Minority Golf Scholarship Association; Jackson later became the first Black assistant golf pro at iconic Pebble Beach.

Thaddeus Gray was the first Black golfer from the Pacific Northwest to earn a PGA instructor card. Tyson LaNore won the Seattle Metro Championship as a freshmen and earned a spot in the National Maxfli Junior Championship. He was followed by Adonis Duckworth, who won the Metro title twice.

And Andia Winslow also earned a spot in the Maxfli tournament and later went on to compete on the Yale varsity golf team. She played in one LPGA event on a sponsor’s exemption.

Club and community members recently presented the Jefferson Park renaming application to the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners at their July meeting. According to community and club members, the 2009, 50th anniversary ceremony and a plaque at Jefferson Park to honor Wright’s historic victory are not enough to honor the magnitude of his achievements.

Said Beacon Hill Council representative Kathy Colombo, “Recognizing our former local resident and hero is long overdue. By renaming the golf complex for Bill, we will be honoring his efforts in an oppressive, white-dominated sport, and will also provide an opportunity for our youth to witness recognition for someone who looks like them as well as other use to know that Seattle is a welcoming community.”

Advocates are optimistic about the application outcome, noting widespread community support. Organizers say they would be surprised if the petition doesn’t go forward, especially as Jefferson Park is the most diverse and multicultural golf course in the region.

“Seattle is a very progressive, forward thinking, very socially inclusive community to begin with,” said Knowles, adding, “I’ve never seen a community as inclusive and supportive of each other and connected through golf as Seattle. It’s special what they have here.”

A community informational event is scheduled to take place at Jefferson Park on October 10 (Bill Wright Day) to encourage additional support and educate the public about Bill Wright’s legacy.

As the club celebrates 75 years, you can sense the ghosts on the putting green every afternoon, placing bets and counting their money. Mssrs. Wilbert Ponder, Jabo Ward, Dave Mann, Bill Lynch, Lucious Dean, Al Hendrix, Frank Jackson, and yes, Bill Wright, are still competing to empty each other’s pockets and hoping to see the next generation of Fir Staters carry on the tradition.

“We’re getting very old and that’s going to be our downfall,” said the late Dave Mann 10 years ago. “It’s like moving water – it’s gotta keep going, it’s gotta keep moving to stay fresh. It’s the same thing with an organization.”

He added, “It would be a shame to see us disappear, and we are on that ledge right now just about ready to fall off unless we do something mighty, mighty quick.”

Honoring the legacy of Bill Wright will go a long way to ensure that never happens.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top