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T here’s a medieval-looking building on Sherman Parkway, with uneven parapets on its roof, a sliding peephole in one of its archaic front doors and masonry that has rough-edged bricks protruding at random—a fitting home for some ancient fraternal order where odd rituals and clubby culture reign.

Well, it’s definitely clubby, at any rate. It’s the home of the Knickerbocker Golf Club, established in 1944, when it was the only black golf club in Connecticut and one of only a handful of such clubs in America. Today, it’s a social hub where members meet before a round of golf or over a round of drinks. (The public can also drink there, from 7 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.) On the course or in the clubhouse, they’re inclined to talk about old times, though they weren’t necessarily good times. The Knickerbockers were around before and during golf’s racial transition, and were themselves a part of it.

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Until 1961, the PGA—Professional Golfers’ Association—tour had a “Caucasians-only” clause, but its removal was only the beginning of a long, slow process of reform. While black golfers could hone their game on public courses, much of the finest turf—the private stuff, often held by country clubs—remained largely out of reach. Not merely an inconsequential snub, such exclusions made it more difficult for black players to train, obtain a United States Golf Association handicap from a licensed club or find sponsors to support them. After the PGA’s ban was scrapped, it would still take 14 years for a black golfer to be admitted into the Masters Tournament, one of the marquee events of the tour, and it would take 30 years before the host of the Masters, the Augusta National Golf Club, would admit a single black member—and only then because the PGA forced its hand.

Along the way, though, some black golfers decided to take matters into their own hands, by starting their own clubs. New Haven’s, of course, was the Knickerbocker, named after the knickers that were so in vogue at the time.

Willie A. Holmes, a Knickerbocker for 66 years, still wears knickers when he plays. “I’ve still got about ten pairs,” he says. But before he was hitting balls in billowy pants tucked into knee-high socks, Holmes was a caddy for “rich, white folk” in his hometown of Newport News, Virginia. One golfer, Melvin Gough, stands out in Holmes’s memory. “He took a liking to me,” Holmes says. “He always encouraged me.” Gough, a retired WWII colonel, told Holmes to go north for school, which he eventually did. To New Haven.

Holmes moved here at the age of 19 and played at the public Alling Memorial Golf Course, which to this day remains a prime stomping ground for the Knickerbockers. While there, he came under the wing of Charles Dorsey and Shepherd Brock—two of the club’s founding members—and joined the Knickerbockers about five years in.

A few years later, Holmes tossed up his cap with the Quinnipiac University class of 1961, earning a degree in Business Administration. He went on to work at Equitable Life Assurance in New York City, climbing to the position of District Sales Manager over the course of 43 years, playing golf all the while.

Holmes remembers what it was like as a black golfer back then, and what the Knickerbocker Golf Club stood for. The club wasn’t just a place where black golfers could fraternize and feel a sense of fellowship. It was also a way to “fight the system.” Holmes and other members continually sent letters, made phone calls and put pressure on private country clubs as well as tournaments like the Masters to allow black players to compete. “We’re the guys who opened the doors to guys like Tiger Woods” who, in 1997, at the age of 23, became not only the first black player to win the Masters but also its youngest winner, by a record-setting 12 strokes.

But before Tiger Woods, there were other black golf legends—several of whom the Knickerbockers hosted at one time or another. The Knickerbocker Golf Club held the United Golfers Association National Tournament twice, in 1970 and 1977. The 1977 tournament saw the likes of Pete Brown—the first black golfer to win a PGA-sanctioned event—and Lee Elder—the first black golfer to play the Masters and Ryder Cup—among others who’d later go on to play, and win, on the PGA circuit.

Today, the grass is greener for black players. Woods and others have made their mark on the sport. Holmes, for his part, says he feels welcome at private country clubs and has had members of the New Haven Country Club—a more traditional endeavor than the Knickerbocker—ask him to join. But Holmes has repeatedly said no, largely because membership at NHCC costs prohibitively more.

Blacks are still underrepresented at country clubs, but the difference is “more economical now than it is racial,” Holmes says. “I’ve played [at the NHCC], I’m welcome there, I’m treated well.” But the Knickerbocker—where membership is a much more manageable $300 a year, and all the faces are familiar ones—is still home.

Knickerbocker Golf Club
715 Sherman Pkwy, New Haven (map)
Public Bar Hours: Wed-Sat 7pm-11pm
(203) 865-1431
www.knickerbockergolf.net

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 1 and 6 by Daniel Shkolnik; remainder by Dan Mims.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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