From the Golf Journal Archives - My Round With Joe

Sep 03, 2010

Former heavyweight champ Joe Louis moved from the ring to the course with ease. Here’s one man’s memory of a few holes with the Brown Bomber.

By Al Barkow

(Note: This article originally appeared in the June 1993 issue of Golf Journal.)

I RECALL that no one was impressed, not even surprised, when I told them. The reaction was kind of “Uh yeah, sure, uh huh.” Understandable. I was just a skinny neighborhood kid who wore glasses. But I wasn’t making it up. I had, in fact, played seven holes of golf with Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber himself, heavyweight champion of the world. We played for the price of my putter, when it was new; 13 bucks. I won, I probably should have given him the putter after collecting my loot, as a nice gesture to a great man. But I didn’t understand that sort of thing at the time; it didn’t fit my stolid, practical working-class background. Hey if I give Louis the putter, I have to buy another one. So what’s the point of winning the bet? Besides, I liked that putter. It was a Golfcraft Lloyd Mangrum Model with a gray soft metal half-moon mallet head, goosenecked. Gooseneck is what is now called offset.

I played the seven holes with Louis at the old Bunker Hill Golf Course, about two blocks into the town of Niles from the north end of Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue streetcar line. Bunker Hill has been a housing development for years now, but it was a public course back then that let blacks play. Not all courses did in 1950.1 was enjoying a round there by myself after caddieing at nearby Tam O’Shanter Country Club to earn money to pay my green fee. I knew the group ahead was Louis and his retinue. He had three or four people who were just hanging around, or on, and a personal pro who was playing with Louis. Sometimes the pro was Ted Rhodes, but not this time. Too bad. Rhodes was the best black golfer before Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder, and maybe ever – he had a wonderfully smooth swing and classic moves.

I caught up with the Louis group on the second green, when I was waved through. Louis was sitting on his bag at the side of the green watching me putt out. There was nothing at all pretentious or self-important about him. There seemed to be a certain passivity, even, but that couldn’t have been, because you don’t become the world’s heavyweight champion by being passive. Anyway, he said he liked my putter. I said I did, too. He asked me how much it cost, I told him, and he said he’d play me for it. So our game was on.

He was by all means a big man, and it wasn’t just presence. He was probably bigger than in his pre-World War II prime, because he had been retired from the ring for a couple of years and had bulked up. Still, he made a pretty good pass at the ball – good form, fluid. After all, he was a superb athlete. But he wasn’t especially long off the tee. I was in my teenage grip-and-rip days and actually hit it a little past him. Naturally this got Louis’s attention. “How do you hit it so far?” he said, with a light tone of incredulity.

I remember only three shots from the affair. First there was a drive hooked into some trees that was longer than his in the fairway that prompted his incredulous question. Then there was the iron out of those trees that reached the green. Louis just looked over at me after that one. I can’t interpret that look. The third shot was at the ninth, a long par-3.1 was 1 up on the tee, and I hit the green. So did Louis. He was away, on a line close to mine. I had marked my ball, but he nicked my coin with his putt, which just missed going in. I got a little anxious about that, a pang that the heavyweight champion of the world would get angry at a little squirt in blue jeans. But of course he didn’t. He made a soft remark with a small smile about my coin costing him the putt. Then he paid me the 13 bucks, and we shook hands. Mine was swallowed up, let me tell you. Then I went my way, he his.

The next time I saw Louis was on television. He was in the ring with Rocky Marciano. The thing that I remember, as does everyone who saw the fight on the tube, was Louis going down with his back on the ropes and the bald spot on the top of his head a sad symbol of his fate at the hands of the powerful, young Marciano.

I’m afraid I have to recall the old gentle giant cliché. For a man of such controlled violence by profession, in my experience Joe Louis was very good-natured, a soft touch. And that was his reputation, that he always had a few bucks for a down-and-out fighter or a hustler with a good story. And he was definitely an easy mark on the golf course. The 13 bucks I got off him, as I later discovered, was a mere pittance compared to what the Tour pros made playing Louis. There were many stories of how Tour pros when they visited Detroit, where Louis lived, played the champ for very big money, and made enough to pay their expenses on the road for a good while.

I was reminded of this last year when Michael Jordan made news losing big bucks to a couple of golf hustlers – another superstar from one sport thinking he could, or should, be able to carry over his talent to golf and discovering that the old Scots game just doesn’t work that way. I also saw for myself how Louis got nicked by the pros. When the big tournaments were played at Tam O’Shanter – the All-American and “World” Opens, I caddied in them. The sponsor of the events and owner of the course, George S. May, let Louis play in the amateur division of his tournaments. When people remarked that Louis wasn’t good enough and should have been made to qualify, May simply said, “Joe Louis qualifies as the heavyweight champion of the world.” That was that. May was a master promoter, and Joe Louis drew crowds just as celebrities do playing in the Tour’s pro-ams.

The pros didn’t complain about Louis being at Tam. They lined up for practice rounds with him – they might well have had a lottery – even those who were either outspoken against or made no effort to let players like Teddy Rhodes and Bill Spiller play on their Tour. The PGA of America was running the Tour in those days, and still had the “Caucasians only” membership clause in its constitution. May was one of the very few Tour sponsors (the Los Angeles Open was another) who let Rhodes, Howard Wheeler, Bill Spiller, and others play. He got away with it because his purse money was a bonanza — $25,000, and eventually $50,000 (not counting a $50,000 exhibition deal) to the winner alone in a day when the total purse elsewhere on the Tour averaged maybe $15,000. To mollify the protesting white pros, May paired the black players together. He was a gradualist in regard to the race problem, but at least he was that.

Louis did a good bit to help black golfers play the game. For a number of years there was the Joe Louis Open, played in Detroit for black players – although whites were allowed to enter and did, taking a week off from the PGA Tour and sometimes winning it. Out-of-pocket, Louis saw to it that black pros had some money to play on the black Tour. As Walter (“Chink”) Stewart, who for many years was head pro at Carroll Park Golf Course, a Baltimore municipal course, recalled, “Only once I went up to Detroit, and I remember the lady in the registration booth saying my entry fee had already been paid. Well, I hadn’t paid it, so I talked to Clyde Martin, who was Joe Louis’s golf teacher, and he told me Joe paid my entry fee. He paid for all the black pros. He was that type of man. And after the tournament was over, he chartered a plane and flew a lot of the black pros up to Canada for a tournament up there.”

On balance, Louis was by his own nature and background – born very poor in the Deep South, with little formal education – from the “go slow” school of integration. But he was capable of taking direct action. He did in 1953, and thereby played a significant role in changing the way things were.

Whether it was fists or clubs, Joe Louis had a powerful, balanced and effective swing. (USGA Museum)

After his retirement from the ring in 1949, Louis fought an occasional exhibition bout. Usually, however, he took it easy and divided his time among golf and other relaxing pursuits. (USGA Museum)

Billy Conn heads for the canvas in a 1946 title bout after a haymaker of a left from Joe. (USGA Museum)