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One day last summer, during my visit to Golf House, the United States Golf Association (USGA) museum and library in Far Hills, N.J., curator Karen Bednarsky showed me a letter she had recently received. It was from JoAnn Overstreet, whose mother, Ann Gregory, had died earlier in the year at age 77. Overstreet wrote that her mother had been a fine golfer, and she wondered if the USGA would be interested in Gregory's trophies.
"Did you know Ann Gregory?" Bednarsky asked me.
Yes, I knew Ann Gregory. I used to play against her. And I also knew that on Sept. 17, 1956, Gregory had teed off in the U.S. Women's Amateur at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis—and so had become the first black woman to play in a national championship conducted by the USGA.
There would be other good black women players: Eoline Thornton, of Long Beach, Calif., played in the 1958 Women's Amateur; Althea Gibson, Wimbledon and USLTA tennis champion, took up the game seriously at age 32 and in 1963 became the first black to play on the LPGA tour; Renee Powell of Canton, Ohio, turned pro in 1967. But Gregory was the first black woman to compete on the national scene, and she might have been the best.
"She was a determined and confident golfer," says Powell, "and she was such a warmhearted, inspirational individual that she helped me by her example, by the kind of person she was. Not enough people know about Ann. She set the stage for every other black female who came into golf after her."
I first met Ann when we were both contestants in the 1963 Women's Amateur in Williamstown, Mass. She was by then a veteran who mingled easily with the other players. But there had been an embarrassing moment earlier in the week.
Polly Riley, who was playing in the tournament, was unpacking her suitcase in her hotel room when she glimpsed Gregory, dressed in white, walking past in the hallway. Mistaking her for a maid, Riley called out, "Hey, can you bring me some coat hangers?" Moments later, Gregory, smiling, came into Riley's room and handed her a bunch of hangers.
"I saw then that she had on golf clothes," says Riley. "I was terribly embarrassed. We laughed about it many times, although that type of thing must have been very difficult for her."
Gregory endured a lot worse. Golf's delicate rituals, however, allow no room for vengeance, and from some deep well of character Gregory was able to forgive the indignities. "Racism is only in your mind. It's something that you overlook or you look at it," she said when I interviewed her for a book I was writing on the history of women's golf. She was 76 then, though she exuded the vitality of a much younger woman, and was playing in the 1988 USGA Senior Women's Amateur. Neither of us knew that it would be her last appearance in national competition.
"Racism works best when you let it affect your mind," she said. "It was better for me to remember that the flaw was in the racist, not in myself. For all the ugliness, I've gotten nice things three times over. I can't think ugly of anybody."