This article appears in the historical files at the Person County Museum of History.
Jim Thorpe, the only African-American on the PGA Senior Tour, worships the old school from which he learned the game. His is a classic, timeless story: a young African-American boy works as a caddy and learns to play on the whites-only course his father tended, tried football for a while and plays collegiately at Morgan State, turns to golf hustling when a broken ankle ends his football career, and finally decides to go to qualifying school, urged on by the woman who would become his wife.
Thorpe’s father, Elbert, was the greens superintendent at Roxboro (N.C.) Golf Club and the family lived on the second hole in what Thorpe said was a comfortable home, despite its lack of modern plumbing. Jim was the ninth of 12 children – “Ten of us were born on that course,” he said – and when he and his brothers weren’t serving as caddies or helping their father with his work, they’d race around the fairways in the late afternoon and find holes to play before being chased off. “It was the South,” Thorpe says, explaining all. “You didn’t see Blacks play golf. I don’t know if there were actual written rules against it on that course, but it just didn’t happen. My dad eventually put his foot down and said, “If my boys are good enough to work on the course, they’re good enough to play on it.”
Elbert Jr., Chuck, who would precede Jim on the Tour – and Jim played whenever they could. Several of the older club members, for whom the Thorpe boys would caddy, began helping them with their game. “Being a caddy is how I learned to play,” Thorpe said. “The old guys would stop by our house and pick us up late afternoon, they’d throw me a ball, and I’d play with them. One man, his name was Wheeler Newell, he pretty much owned Person County. He gave me my first set of clubs, and he’d take me on the golf course to play, but I had to caddy for him, too. My dad would play when he could but his hands got burned real badly when the gas tank on a tractor he was working on blew up. Still, I used to see him hit balls one-handed and he’d just drive them so far.
“What always stands out in my mind about my dad, though, is that he always insisted that I work on my short game. He said that’s how you become a good player.”
Elbert Sr. died on October 22, 1994. Vivian, the matriarch, died February 1, Jim’s birthday, the next year. Both parents suffered from diabetes. In the last year, Thorpe also lost his uncle, nephew, and brother-in-law. “For a while all he was doing was going to funerals,” Carol Thorpe said. “He’d get over one and all of a sudden there was another one to go to.”
Said Thorpe, a devout Catholic, “I’d be lying if I said that didn’t affect me. It shouldn’t be that hard, but it is, however, I’ve been able to snap out of it.”
From a golfing standpoint, Thorpe credits Vijay Singh, who at this stage of his career is a reflection of Thorpe, minus 15 years. “I see in him what I used to do,” Thorpe said. “I used to beat golf balls from sunup to sundown, and Vijay’s the same way. I got away from that and he knew it. He basically started getting on my case, telling me I could come all the way back if I just started working hard again. Not that I doubted it, but it’s always good to get that kind of support.”
As he continues to strengthen his back and work on his game before returning to the PGA Tour for about a dozen tournaments a year, Thorpe devotes much of this time to supporting underprivileged children through his foundation. “They need role models, but there aren’t many professional Black golfers left,” Thorpe laments. We’ve kind of accepted Vijay as one of us, because even though he’s from Fiji, he’s just as dark. I’m real excited about Tiger Woods because this is a young man who has turned a lot of young people on just by the way he does things. No doubt in my mind, he will be a world-beater.”