Theodore “Ted” Rhodes (1913-1969)

Ted Rhodes practicing his swing at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California, June 11, 1948
Courtesy The Ron Watts Collection, Historic Golf Photos, Fair use image

Theodore “Ted” Rhodes was one of the earliest professional African American golfers, paving the way for other professional black golfers such as Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Renee Powell and Tiger Woods. Rhodes was born on November 9, 1913 in Nashville, Tennessee. While he developed an interest in the game of golf at a young age, it was his work as a caddie at the Belle Meade and Richland Country Clubs during his teenage years that really inspired him to learn to play the game. Following a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s, Rhodes joined the Navy during World War II. After his discharge he again began to pursue the game of golf.

The United States Golf Association (USGA) did not allow African American members. Consequently, upon his return from the war Rhodes toured the golf circuit sponsored by the United Golfers’ Association (UGA). The UGA had been formed in 1926 as a response to the USGA’s discrimination policies against African Americans. Rhodes played the U.S. Open in 1948 at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, California, thereby becoming recognized as the first African American professional golfer. Also in 1948, Rhodes sued the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) for its “Caucasians-only clause.” While the suit was settled out of court, the PGA would change its tournament policy to that of “invitationals,” effectively staying segregated. It was not until 1961 that the “Caucasians-only clause” was finally eliminated from the PGA’s bylaws.

Earning himself the nickname “Rags” due to his flashy clothes, Rhodes, despite his obvious talent, was rarely allowed to participate in whites-only tournaments. Instead, he played in the few racially integrated tournaments available, mostly in Northern states. Rhodes always fared well in those tournaments, usually finishing in the top ten. However, due to segregation, most of the tournaments in which he played were sponsored by the UGA. During his career he won over 150 UGA sponsored tournaments. Rhodes also taught golf. Some of his noted pupils were heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, and the first African American to play in the Masters Tournament, Lee Elder.

By the 1960s Rhodes left the tournament circuit and returned to his home in Nashville, where he continued to be involved with the game of golf. He died on July 4, 1969 at the age of 55. Following his death the Cumberland Golf Course, Nashville’s first African American golf course, was renamed the Ted Rhodes Golf Course in his honor. Posthumously, he was inducted into the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame in 1998, and granted membership to the PGA in 2009.