Photo by Soheb Zaidi on Unsplash

Black golf hall of fame prodigy Mr. James Black: My brush with greatness

February 27, 2023

James Black was a child prodigy. When I was a teen, he was my golf coach for a time in 1979-80. I know him as a spiritual man who touched my life at a time when I encountered all things awkward.

In 1964, he scored a 67 at the Los Angeles Open, the first African American to do so. (No, it wasn’t Tiger; sorry). He played professional golf in America at a time when being black meant separate drinking fountains and “no admittance.” He played on both the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) and the United Golfers Association (UGA) tours.

African American golfers needed serious financial sponsors in those days and Mr. Black, as many of us still call him, lost his within the first six months of PGA tour play. Despite his lack of overall sponsorship, Mr. Black gleaned much of his golf knowledge from the legendary Sam Snead and Clayton Heafner, two professionals who took him under their wings. Had he the economic backing some others had, his PGA experience would have no doubt lasted much longer. This wasn’t about lack of skill. Jim Thorpe, former UGA/PGA tour player and peer of Black’s, said “We’ve had a lot of great players, but the best black player, in my opinion, was a guy named James Black. He could do things with a ball that I never saw anybody else do.”[i] His friend and colleague Jim Dent, who enjoyed regular time on the PGA tour, recalled, “James Black was the best player in our race then. Better than all of them. He had everything. He had the swing, the distance; he had all the shots…”[ii]

A charter member (1986) of the Black Golf Hall of Fame, Mr. Black hails from my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. For James Black, golf is a spiritual experience. I reconnected with him in the spring of 2017 during a return trip to Charlotte. He grew up in the church, realizing that God gave him special gifts. He is fond of saying “I teach fish how to swim,” regarding his expansive career of teaching young people the game of golf during the past five decades. We chatted about his early career, that difficult and often ugly time with respect to civil rights during the 1950s and ’60s. He told me, “I’ve been called everything but a child of God.” I could see a distant pain in his eyes when he said it.[iii]

James Black was a child prodigy. When I was a teen, he was my golf coach for a time in 1979-80. I know him as a spiritual man who touched my life at a time when I encountered all things awkward.
During the 1960s, most black players would turn to gambling games because they were not allowed to enter regular tournaments with white players. A 2009 Golf Channel production titled “Uneven Fairways,” narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, showcases many of our early African American golf pioneers. I recommend it for a window into the African American experience during the mid-20th century in America. In it, Mr. Black’s fellow UGA/PGA player Al Green recalled, “James Black would hustle you. If you couldn’t play…he knew just how many shots to give ya—so he can beat ya. And he’d make you feel good: When you walked off you’d say, ‘Boy, if I hadn’t missed that putt on 15 or 16 I’d a beat this guy!’” Mr. Black offered his own reflections during the program: “I got to the point in my life that, I thought…I was the greatest player in the world. I made over four million dollars in the ’60s gambling.” Mr. Black was good at creating opportunities for himself despite the most difficult of times and circumstances. Imagine how different golf might have been had Mr. Black and others been permitted to compete professionally on America’s golf courses in those days.

One of the things I noticed during my time with him in 2017 was how part of his mission is to encourage. He made a point of telling me that I am precious in God’s sight; this man, who to this day, avoids the drive-through at eating establishments because he doesn’t like the window shut in his face. It reminds him of slammed windows and doors from years past when he was told to “go around back,” where he would have to wait until white people were served. Today, he prefers to walk in where he can see people eye to eye. In response to my asking him if he was aware at an early age of the genius afforded him as a child, he said “Yes. I became a student, and God revealed these things to me.”[iv]

Being around Mr. Black reminds me of Christlikeness. Jesus, we know, was partial to talking about love and service. They are part of the medicine that treats the ills of this world: racism, slavery, laziness, pride, envy, and hatred. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asked Jesus if they could share his company in heaven, and Jesus instructed them that only God could determine who would sit at Jesus’ side at that time. The other disciples became contentious about this discussion and Jesus told them:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45, ESV)

Most of us trust and pray that love will win out. Not just any love, but the agape kind of love that usually stems from servanthood; the kind of servant life that Mr. Black has led these many decades. The kind that overcomes. The kind that says—as he said to me— “I love you and there ain’t a thing you can do about it.”

Last year, Mr. Black celebrated his 80th birthday, something that makes me jubilant. Let’s face it: I can’t say that I never had a brush with greatness.

Rev. Bryan D. Jackson is an American Baptist minister and a member of the Cherokee Community of Puget Sound and the Mt. Hood Cherokees, both satellite communities of the Cherokee Nation. He lives on Vashon Island, Washington and is the author of Chattahoochee Rain: A Cherokee novella.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] McDaniel, Pete. (2000). Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf. Greenwich, CT: The American Golfer, p. 119.

[ii] Kennedy, John H. (2005). A Course of Their Own: A History of African American Golfers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, p. 164.

[iii] Jackson, Bryan D. (2018). Called Yet Again. Bryan D. Jackson (Gadugi Media). Page 36.

[iv] Ibid, page 38.

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