Thomas “Smitty” Smith, 88: Black golf pioneer

“He was so excited to get to watch Tiger Woods play,” said daughter Kenyatta “Kim” Seals, of Atlanta. “He would say there were times he never thought he’d see a Tiger Woods, because Dad was from a different era, you know?”

Born and raised in Atlanta's east side during the 20s in a home near what is now the first hole of the Candler Park Golf Course, Mr. Smith was destined to be a golfer. He eventually made a career of the game, coached one of his five daughters to a college scholarship and never could retire from his golf shop on Cleveland Avenue, even as his health declined.

“He’d say he was going to close the shop, but we knew he didn’t really mean it,” said Mrs. Seals. “He felt keeping the shop open showed his commitment to being an African-American entrepreneur. He was proud of that.”

Thomas Smith, called Smitty by most, of Atlanta, died March 29 at home from complications associated with diabetes. He was 88.

A funeral service has been scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at Beulah Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur. Burial at Washington Memorial Gardens will follow. Donald Trimble Mortuary is in charge of arrangements.

While he grew up a mere sand wedge away from Candler Park, he was 25 before he teed off there. And when he did in 1965, he was the first black to play the course. Years later, he became the first black golf pro to work at an Atlanta area golf course, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution archives.

Mr. Smith first worked as a caddie at area courses, including Druid Hills Golf Club, when he was a teenager. He caddied throughout high school and after graduation joined the Army. After he got out of the military in the mid- 40s, he moved to Indianapolis, where he played on integrated courses owned by the city. He also traveled the country, playing in professional tournaments with other black golfers, but segregation limited the competitions and kept him out of many hotels.

Mr. Smith returned to Atlanta to stay in the mid-50s and opened his own golf shop which changed locations several times through the years.

“There were people who would try to get him to put his shop in places where he’d get more business,” said daughter Veta Jonas, of Atlanta. “But he was adamant about keeping the shop in the community.”

In addition to Candler Park, he was the golf pro at the Lincoln Country Club, an all-black facility in northwest Atlanta, and the city-owned Tup Holmes Golf Course during his career. He also sponsored tournaments for black golfers during a time when there were not many opportunities for them, said fellow golfer Roy Deadwyler, of Atlanta.

Mr. Smith was widely known for helping up-and-coming black golfers get exposure and equipment, said golf legend Lee Elder, who broke the color barrier at the 1975 Masters and now splits his time between the East and West coasts.

“He was there at a time when many black players wanted to get equipment and play,” Mr. Elder said. “But they couldn’t get it from the manufacturers, but they could get it from Smitty.”

In 1970, Mr. Smith became one of the founders and the first president of the North American Golfers Association, which didn’t discriminate against those who wanted to join.

“We couldn’t get in the PGA,” said Joe Keith. “So that’s what we had, but we didn’t turn anybody away, that was the difference.”

In the 2009 Golf Channel documentary “Uneven Fairways,” Mr. Smith offered sobering commentary about the inequities between blacks and whites in golf, a subject he knew all too well. In 1986, Mr. Smith was among 13 black professionals -- and PGA great Arnold Palmer -- who were inducted in the National Black Golf Hall of Fame. During an interview about the honor, Mr. Smith said of his life-long affair with the game: “It part of my heritage. I've done all I can to keep it going and make friends with people. This is where my roots are at."

Mr. Smith is also survived by his wife of 65 years, Ernestine Scruggs Smith; three additional daughters, Janis Smith and Finnessee Moss, both of Atlanta, and Hilda Jackson of Charleston, S.C.; 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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