First African American member of the USGA Executive Committee dies

March 7, 2020
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John Merchant, the first African American member of the USGA Executive Committee, died Thursday after a battle with an undisclosed illness. He was 87 years old.

Merchant was a long-time lawyer and civil rights activist in Bridgeport, Conn., and played a prominent role in opening up professional golf to African Americans, including Tiger Woods.

Originally born in Greenwich, Conn., Merchant practiced law for over 50 years after becoming the first African American graduate of the University of Virginia Law School in 1958. He went on to create the Walter N. Ridley Scholarship Fund in 1987, assisting African American students enrolling at the University of Virginia with various financial aid.

Prior to his time serving on the USGA Executive Committee, Merchant served on the U.S. Mid-Amateur committee and was the chair for the U.S. Senior Open in 1987 and the U.S. Women’s Open in 1979, both played at his local Brooklawn Country Club.

In 1992. he was appointed to the USGA’s Executive Committee, breaking the color barrier as the first African American to serve on the board for the sport’s governing body. While on the committee, Merchant made it a point to bring together African American golfers from around the country in a series of symposiums, connecting them with various stakeholders in golf. One of the topics involved starting a program to provide African Americans with better opportunities to play golf.

“The First Tee eventually came out of a seminar,” Merchant said to the Connecticut Post in 2010. “(PGA Tour commissioner Tim) Finchem came to that seminar. He had just become commissioner and he told me that diversity was on his list of things to do. It wasn’t at the top, but it was on the list and I’d like to think that the First Tee came from that. It’s been great in attracting black kids.”

Merchant eventually formed a relationship with the Woods family through his work with the USGA, even working as the family’s attorney in the mid 90s. The partnership fizzled out in 1996 for undisclosed reasons just before Woods turned pro.

For his efforts to bring the golf to historically marginalized communities, Merchant was elected to the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in 2010.

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