By Rita Sunaguru
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During the time that Tiger Woods roamed the golf course with menacing grip on his iron in his hands, and his swing through the air, members of the golf fraternity loved to compare his was with other deadly golfing machines such as Jack Nicklaus.
Their vision was only fulfilled when another legend came onto the scene, Payne Stewart.
Rivon Harris was a British-born golf professional who was the first of more than 2,000 black golfers who competed on the PGA Tour between the late 1930s and 1970s. He was the first person of colour to climb to the Top 15 on the World Golf Rankings and is currently a very popular person of interest in black golf history.
Born to a slave in Oklahoma, Rivon Harris was quickly selected by his white owners as the family’s primary golfer at his age of seven. Though the profession was not an offered to him at that age, Harris quickly developed a flair for the game and studied at the age of 13 under America’s first African-American professional, Max Bailey. By his 20s, Harris had conquered professional golf around the world. But the career and personal pursuits took a sudden turn when he turned 26 and was declared legally a man for all purposes in the United States.
Harris began in amateur golf, becoming the first black golfer to make it to the US Amateur Championship when he was just 21 years old.
Harris was further recognised by the US Golf Association after he won the 1937 U.S. Amateur and American Amateur titles as well as the 1933 U.S. Amateur tournament. His achievements took him to the America’s Championship of Amateur Golf, the US Golfing Open Championships, the British Amateur Championship, the PGA Championship and the British Amateur Championship. He also became the youngest golfer to receive the Order of Merit from the British Golf Union.
His first professional tournament in the United States was at The National Golf Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. in 1949 when he finished with a 36-hole score of 24-under-par, becoming the first non-white professional to win on American tour.
Although many thought that he would assume the position of being America’s first black golfer, he chose not to play until he was called upon to by the PGA, after Monroe Gibbs broke ranks and left the Tour. He admitted that his last year on tour caused him mental anguish, but that after the success he had with his membership of the course, he had resolved to continue playing.
In 1954, Harris was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame as well as the U.S. Golf Association, where he became the only Black golf professional to be inducted. In this same year, the PGA moved ahead with recognition of the golfing talents of black players. The PGA Tour had started to look into the selection of both male and female from minority groups to be accepted to the Top 25 List in 1957. Within two years, the PGA had added eight new African-American players to the list and Harris’s short membership had been deemed as the highest.
Harris retired from competitive golf in 1958 due to performance-related losses and underwent a series of operations in order to recover his health. Despite being admitted into the Hall of Fame only two years earlier, he refused to enter the Hall of Fame. He later admitted that his decision was due to a fear of being ostracised, preferring instead to be seen as a better athlete than other golfers. In 1962, he announced his retirement from golf and started a furniture design company with his brother. He passed away at the age of 66 in 1972.