She was first Black woman in a USGA championship. The incredible story of Ann Gregory


In February for Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports is publishing the series 28 Black Stories in 28 Days. We examine the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials continue to face after the nation’s reckoning on race two years ago.

Ann Gregory was walking one morning inside a swanky hotel next to a golf club where, hours later, she would take the course by storm.

Where she would play in a national tournament among a sea of white women, hitting drives so monstrous that — in some outings — she was required to hit her first shot from the men’s tees.

As Gregory passed a room, another player was unpacking her suitcase. The door was open. “Excuse me, could you get me some hangers?” the woman asked. “I need some for my clothes.”

Gregory was Black, wearing all white. The other player was white and mistook Gregory for a hotel maid.

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“Mom didn’t say anything other than she smiled graciously and got the hangers,” said her daughter, JoAnn Gregory Overstreet. “She got the hangers and took them back to the room.”

Out on the course later that day in 1963, the woman who had asked for the hangers saw Gregory competing in the tournament. She quickly realized her mistake.

“She was so embarrassed, but mom was always gracious,” said Overstreet. “She was there to play golf. She always said racism was in the eye of the beholder.”

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Ann Gregory of Gary, Ind. on the third green during the first round of the Women's Amateur championship golf in Williamstown, Mass. on Aug. 19, 1963.

Ann Gregory of Gary, Ind. on the third green during the first round of the Women’s Amateur championship golf in Williamstown, Mass. on Aug. 19, 1963.

That attitude took Gregory, a woman born in Aberdeen, Mississippi, in 1912, on a journey competing on the world’s biggest stages of golf. It took her on a journey laden with bigotry and prejudice, too many obstacles to count and too much happiness to care.

Gregory, who first picked up a golf club at 31 to pass time while her husband was away at World War II, went on to become the first Black woman to play in a USGA championship.

She did it at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis playing in the U.S. Women’s Amateur. She did it at a time when the PGA had a Caucasian clause that banned nonwhites from membership. She did it for one reason.

“She loved the game of golf,” Overstreet said. “And she didn’t care about the fact the color of her skin should matter. And she lived by that.”

‘There was a mob at the first tee’

The newspapers in 1956 got Gregory’s age wrong. One said she was 28. Another said 38. When Gregory became the first Black woman to play in a USGA Championship, she was 44.

By that time, Gregory was living in Gary, Indiana. By that time, she had won many other tournaments for Black players — the Chicago Women’s Golf Association Championship, the Joe Louis Invitational and the United Golf Association Championship.

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But this tournament was different. As the first round began on a windy September day in 1956, “there was a mob at the first tee,” golfer Carolyn Cudone told Golf Journal magazine in 1998.

A newspaper photo of Ann Gregory playing as the first Black woman in a USGA championship at Meridian Hills in Indianapolis in 1956.

A newspaper photo of Ann Gregory playing as the first Black woman in a USGA championship at Meridian Hills in Indianapolis in 1956.

“A lot of them were reporters,” Cudone said. “I was shocked by the crowd’s size because, in those days, first-round matches didn’t often draw so many people.”

But no United States Women’s Amateur had ever had a Black woman playing in its midst. Gregory had qualified for the USGA tournament with a required low handicap. Neither Meridian Hills nor USGA stopped her from playing.

The PGA still had its Caucasian clause in 1956. That wouldn’t be lifted until five years later. But Gregory wasn’t a member; she was simply participating in a tournament.

And some people didn’t like that.

Cudone, who was paired to play Gregory in the first round, told Golf Journal she vividly remembers the words a club parking attendant said to her father before the match: “Your daughter better win today or you’d better not come back to this parking lot.”

Gregory came out strong, taking a two-stroke lead on Cudone, the tournament’s projected winner.

Gregory ended up losing the match. Marlene Steward won the tournament. But history was made.

A photo titled “Smiling Loser” ran in the Indianapolis News the next day showing Gregory swinging her club. Her presence as the first Black woman ever to play in the Women’s National Amateur golf tournament was said to have “caused a flurry of excitement.”

Meridian Hills club president Kevin Markey is proud of what happened at his course all those years ago.

“That is historic. That is really cool,” Markey remembers thinking when he heard of Gregory’s feat. “I mean, I was just pleased that we were part of that history.”

Black people weren’t allowed. She didn’t care

Gregory’s early life was marked by grief, devastation and hard work. Her parents, Henry and Myra Moore, died when she was a young girl.

A white family took Gregory in and agreed to pay for her food, housing and clothing — in exchange for her being their maid.

In later years, the then-Ann Moore said she was mistreated by that family and that she was thrilled to meet Percy Gregory. The two married in 1938 and moved to Gary.

There Gregory, who had always been athletic, began to shine. She started playing tennis and soon was the Gary city tennis champion.

Gregory had never played golf, but Percy did. He was in a golf club called the Par-Makers, for Black men.

Gregory started going to the golf course with her husband and thought this was a sport she could be good at. When Percy was sent with the Navy to World War II, Gregory decided she would go to the golf course and swing a club.

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“She knew there was just something about golf that lifted her sprits,” Overstreet said.

Gregory had a competitive spirit. If she was going to play any sport, she was going to make sure she was the best she could be.

Ann Gregory always told her daughter that racism was in the eye of the beholder.

Ann Gregory always told her daughter that racism was in the eye of the beholder.

Gregory hired Calvin Ingram, a veteran of the United Golfers Association, which was part of the Black golf circuit, to give her lessons.

“The minute she hit that ball, he said, ‘You are meant to play this game of golf,'” said Overstreet. “He knew she was something special.”

Gregory took what Ingram said and dug in her heels. She was determined to take the talent she had and make something of it. And that meant practice.

But it wasn’t always easy getting on the courses Gregory wanted to play, said Overstreet. In Gary, Gregory was relegated to a 9-hole course where Black players were allowed. The 18-hole South Gleason Golf Club that Gregory wanted to play had not been integrated.

“Mom went up to them one day with her money and said she was a taxpayer in that city,” said Overstreet. “And she didn’t see why there couldn’t be anyone of any color participating there.”

Gregory laid her money down on the counter and walked onto the first tee. No one stopped her.

‘Among our most prized possessions’

During her life, Gregory won more than 300 golf tournaments, including four United Golfers Association national women’s championships. She also won titles in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Spain. She played in 27 USGA tournaments.

The USGA has been building a collection to honor and commemorate Gregory, and recently purchased her contestant badge from the 1956 tournament at Meridian Hills. They bought it from a friend of Gregory’s, who was an avid collector.

“She held onto the badge and counted it among her most precious collections,” said Kylie Garabed, the USGA Museum’s curator of collections. “Now, it’s among our most prized possessions.”

Ann Gregory played during a time the PGA of America had a Caucasian Clause, a part of the association’s by-laws that prevented nonwhites from membership from 1934 to 1961.

Ann Gregory played during a time the PGA of America had a Caucasian Clause, a part of the association’s by-laws that prevented nonwhites from membership from 1934 to 1961.

What Gregory did, playing golf as a Black woman in the 1940s and 50s, wasn’t unheard of, Garabed said. There were golf clubs founded for Black women that were thriving.

“But it was rare in the elite competitive national championships at the time,” said Garabed. “It still is rare, honestly.”

Because Black golfers weren’t playing in mainstream circuits in the early part of the 20th century, many have been overlooked. The museum wants to tell the stories of those players.

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Overstreet recently donated a set of clubs, a golf bag and some other significant items from her mom’s playing career to the USGA Museum.

Meridian Hills, too, is working to honor Gregory on its wall of fame, said Markey.

“We’re really pleased to be connected,” he said. “To be connected to that singular, historic achievement Ann Gregory made back then.”

‘It doesn’t matter to me what color you are’

Overstreet often thinks about the saying, “Give me roses while I’m alive so I can smell them.”

It wasn’t until after Gregory’s death that people started reaching out to Overstreet to honor her mom.

“It’s one of those things you hope in a lifetime it will happen, you hope she could see it,” Overstreet said. “It was unfortunate.”

Gregory died in 1990 at the age of 77. She played in Senior Women’s Amateur tournaments until her death. In 1989, months before she died, Gregory won the gold medal in the U.S. National Senior Olympics, beating a field of 50 women by 44 strokes.

She was inducted into the United Golf Association Hall of Fame in 1966, the African American Golfers Hall of Fame in 2006, the National African American Golfers Hall of Fame in 2011 and the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in 2012.

“They called her a pioneer and a trailblazer,” said Overstreet.

Ann Gregory with an official car circa 1950. Gregory was a pioneer for Black women in golf, often being called the queen of the sport for her race.

Ann Gregory with an official car circa 1950. Gregory was a pioneer for Black women in golf, often being called the queen of the sport for her race.

Gregory was a pioneer and trailblazer, but not only in golf. She was responsible for integrating the Gary Public Library Board as the first Black member. She served on too many community boards to count — churches, the United Way, hospitals.

But Overstreet said her mom would always let those organizations know when golf season came around. Gregory would work all winter serving her community and then take a break to play golf.

And on those breaks, Gregory made golf history. “Ann Gregory was the best Black female golfer of the 20th century,” Arthur Ashe wrote in his book.

In her early years, Gregory was called the queen of Black golf, Overstreet said. But really, she was the queen of golf.

“She knew she was gifted and that she was the best,” Overstreet said. “She said, ‘I’m going to play because I know I can play. It doesn’t matter to me what color you are. It’s just a love of the game of golf.”

Overstreet begins to read the words from an article published after her mom’s death.

“She was described as a breath of fresh air and an inspiration to golfers and others as she played,” Overstreet said. “She also was said to endure painful slights with warmth, humor, courage and good sense. She actually cherished the game. And in the end, she honored it.”

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Ann Gregory was the first Black woman to play in a USGA championship





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