Long before there was a Tiger Woods, Jim Thorpe, Bill Stiller and Charlie Siffords were making history on the golf course. “Uneven Fairways,” a documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, pays homage to the men and women of The Negro Golf Leagues who endured racial inequalities and still managed to tee off with the help of supporters and avid golfers such as heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis. ESSENCE.com caught up with Joe Louis Barrow, the son of the boxing great, to talk about his father’s contribution to the game, working to improve the lives of youth through his nonprofit The First Tee, and why everyone should appreciate the history of Black golfers.
ESSENCE.COM: The documentary, “Uneven Fairways,” reveals that your father, the legendary boxer Joe Louis, was an avid golfer. Did he introduce you to the game?
JOE LOUIS BARROW: Yes, he was and he introduced me to the game when I was 5 or 6 years old. Some of the most special times we spent together were on the golf course, when he and I were alone and no one could interrupt us. I can remember the frustration I felt whenever we visited a restaurant and folks wanted an autograph. My parents were divorced, and the time I spent with my father was my time. It wasn’t until much later that I understood the significance of who he was and why people always wanted to touch him and shake his hands. My parents were divorced when I was young. Later, I understood the significance of who he was.
ESSENCE.COM: How instrumental was your father in organizing other Black golfers?
BARROW: My father really was one of the first public individuals to speak out against segregation in the sport and the first Black to play in the 1952 PGA . My father traveled to San Diego to protest against the segregation and said, “Let them tell me to my face I can’t be member.” At the end of the day, he qualified as an amateur player, but there were some Black professional golfers that weren’t allowed to join. During his career as a heavyweight champion, my father helped sponsor golf tournaments and prizes so that some of the Black pro golfers could earn a living, so he was very involved in the game.
ESSENCE.COM: What rules of the game did your father teach you that transcended the course?
BARROW: The easiest lesson he taught me is that you honor your commitments. Golfers have a tendency to make wagers. I remember we played in Las Vegas and my father bet me ten dollars and I lost to him. When we got off the 18-green I realized I left my wallet at home and he asked for his ten dollars and I didn’t have it. He left and came back and asked for it again and I paid him. He never asked me where I got the money from and I never told him. Afterwards, I went home and got my wallet and came back to the golf course to repay the pro who gave me the loan to pay the loan. I had honored my commitment.
ESSENCE.COM: As the CEO of The First Tee, which helps youth build life-enhancing skills through golf and character education, you are establishing your own legacy while still honoring your father’s history in golf. Have you ever felt pressured to live up to your father’s legacy?
BARROW: Throughout my life I have always struggled with what level of contribution I will make. Once people discovered I was his son, they always told me, “You have no idea how significant or the impact your father had on our lives or the difference he allowed me to make in my life.” And these were [sentiments] that came from Black and Whites, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor. My legacy is having had the honor of participating in the building and growth of The First Tee. After nine years, we are reaching 2.9 million young people who are striving to go to college. I am fortunate to witness and hear the pride in these stories from the children and the parents who have all been touched by the efforts of The First Tee.
ESSENCE.COM: Indeed that is truly awesome. Well what do you hope viewers will learn from this documentary?
BARROW: I hope they will walk away with an appreciation of the perseverance and love that Blacks had for the game. They had to love the game in order to endure the challenges they faced just to play.
Check out “Uneven Fairways” tonight at 9 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel.