Looking back at the men who broke the color barrier in Ivy League golf

Looking back at the men who broke the color barrier in Ivy League golf

Burton Smith, left, and Rick Hyde returned to Princeton in the fall of 2009 for the first time since their college days.
Allison Bourne-Vanneck

At Argyle Country Club in the rolling hills of Silver Spring, Md., the two golfers preparing to tee off aren’t wearing aviator sunglasses and they no longer sport afros.

There’s no sight of the persimmon Wilson Staff drivers that used to be “clutch,” and the fitted white cotton Princeton golf shirts they once wore have been replaced with more colorful ones in, well, different sizes.

After all, it’s no longer 1975.

On this brisk autumn day, no Ivy League opponents wait to be taken down, and Princeton Coach Bill Quackenbush is not urging on the two black players who broke the color barrier in Ivy League golf as surely as other athletes had done in other sports much earlier.

But that was more than three decades ago. Today, Rick Hyde (Princeton ’75) and Burton Smith (Princeton ’77) are simply two guys playing the game they love, the game they’ve always loved.

Although it has been 33 years, Princeton golf has never entirely left Hyde and Smith, nor should it. While there have been recent stories written about Andia Winslow, an African American golfer at Yale (class of 2004), little has been written about Hyde and Smith, who were pioneers before Winslow was born.

And while much has changed after 33 years, for these Princeton grads some things prove to be eternal: Same swings, same swagger, same chatter — all are evident as a middle-aged lefty tees it up and rips his first shot down the fairway of the 408-yard par-4.

“Just another day at the office,” says Smith, twirling his MacGregor driver.

“Don’t worry, that’s the only shot he’s got,” says Hyde before bombing his drive down the left side of the fairway.

If anybody would know, it’s Hyde, the first African American to play golf in the Ivies.

It’s the same shot he witnessed as a Princeton junior back at Springdale Golf Club, home course of the Tigers, in 1974, when
Smith was a freshman walk-on.

“Burton was a wonderful breath of fresh air, a ray of light,” says Hyde. “Once I realized, ‘Hey, there’s a brother who can play golf,’ I was like, ‘Oh, heck yeah!’ So we played all the time. And it was cool.”

Rick Hyde: An Anomaly

Long before coming to Princeton, a world of privilege and tradition, Hyde was just a black kid in Washington, D.C., beating balls on the courses that let him — black-friendly courses like Langston, East Potomac and Falls Road.

“There were only a few courses we could play,” Hyde says. “All the private clubs — no black golfers on them at all. Which was not a big deal. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we can’t play these courses — I’m sad.’ I was a kid happy to be along with the other big guys.”

One of those “big guys” was Lee Elder, who lived in Maryland back then and in ’75 would become the first African American to play in the Masters.

“As a youngster, the guys would get me into these betting situations,” Hyde says, “but I ain’t playing Lee…. I know who you are, Lee Elder. I can’t play you. You’re going to beat me. I’m not going to just give you money!”

Back then, Hyde was an anomaly — a kid who never took lessons yet shot in the low 70s. He was a 14-year-old playing with a man like Elder and hustling with other “big guys” such as Chuck Thorpe, a long-hitter from Virginia and the brother of Jim Thorpe, a three-time PGA Tour winner who went on to win 13 other times on the Champions tour.

“If I could play with Chuck … he was the player back then,” Hyde says. “These guys were competitive. I wanted to play them. I wanted a match.”

That’s how Hyde learned to become a competitor — playing against “sharks in the water,” he says.

“You learn when you don’t have but the four dollars your mother gave you to buy a hamburger and you’re in a match for $150, $200,” says Hyde, “which was a lot of money back in the ’60s, like $2,000 today. You know you can’t afford to lose.”

From Junior Golf to the Ivy League

The D.C. shark tank was a merciless proving ground, but Hyde showed he could swim in it. He did so well, in fact, that during summer breaks he played against professionals in state opens in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. As a senior in high school Hyde shot a 68 to win the 1970 Metropolitan Schoolboy Championship — and catch the eye of Princeton’s Quackenbush. But Hyde admits that he’s still not sure how he wound up on the Tiger team.

“I didn’t understand the whole dynamics of recruitment back then,” he says. “I know I applied to Princeton and got in. I got to Princeton and the golf coach knew all about me and wanted me to play.”

Princeton Golf: A Whole New World

Princeton was a new type of shark tank, one with decidedly colder water.

The Princeton team played spring matches when it was so snowy and cold that Hyde could barely grip the club.

“One morning during freshman year there was supposed to be a match over at Springdale,” Hyde says. “I got up and it was snowing and freezing rain! Snow had accumulated on the ground, mushy stuff. I remember rolling over and going back
to sleep.” But over at Springdale, play went on.

“I missed the match,” Hyde says. “It was embarrassing. Coach Quackenbush was pissed! But I can’t play when my hands are cold.”

At Princeton, Hyde was one of only 94 black students in the 1,139-person class of 1975. On the golf team, he had Smith, but no one else, yet “it never bothered me,” Hyde says. “I had people that stared at me my whole life. They stared at me because I was the youngest black person on the course. They stared at me because I could lace it down the fairway almost 300 yards with a little draw — with a golf ball that had only 262 dimples!”

Stares were one thing. The greater challenge was Quackenbush’s. He had to get his long-hitters from D.C. and Lansing, Mich., into clubs such as The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., where Harvard played, and Pine Valley and Winged Foot, clubs with no black members.

“You know we’re playing all these courses that never had black players,” Hyde says. “I think [Quackenbush] was like, ‘Look, the guy can play. The guy is going to play. He’s on my team. What are you going to do? He didn’t give a damn.’ “

And neither did Hyde, who took it all in stride. Like the time Princeton played a match at Winged Foot in 1972. Hyde — sporting a Funkadelic-sized afro, aviator sunglasses, an orange, black and white Princeton golf shirt, and a bag full of vintage Kenneth Smith clubs — was stopped in the parking lot by a female member.

“She mistook me for the parking attendant and handed me her keys,” Hyde says. “I found that to be quite hilarious. I ended up turning them back into the pro shop, but it did occur to me to do something a little more dastardly, like drive off with the car, but we were going to play golf in about an hour.”

Hyde would win his match that day.

“I knew that African-American golfers were not welcome at these courses,” he says. “There were no black members. At a number of the courses the only African-American people there were caddies, cooks and bus boys — period. And somehow in that climate coach Quackenbush had us on those teams. We just rolled up and played. I don’t know how he maneuvered it in advance.”

Hyde can’t recall exactly how many times he traveled with the Princeton team or the number of matches he played. But he does recall competing and traveling all four years at Princeton and winning a varsity letter.

Not far behind Hyde was Smith — a determined walk-on in 1973 who wouldn’t walk away. Not that Hyde, according to Smith, would have let him.

Burton Smith: The Walk-on

“Rick mentored me and said, ‘No matter what happens, don’t give up,’ and I took that to heart,” Smith says. “I have to give him a lot of credit for that. He said it was important to keep playing, and that the coach would play the best players.”

In his junior year Smith got his chance. He had finally grown accustomed to the tight fairways at Springdale and performed well enough in a qualifier to travel with the team in 1976. Smith’s first match was against Harvard and Yale at Yale Golf Course.

On a rainy April day Smith played his first Ivy League match as if it was his last. On the final hole, a long, tricky par-5, Smith hit a one-iron approach shot to about an arm’s length from the pin.

“It lands on the top level and stops because it’s so wet, and I’m inside six feet,” Smith says. “It was one of the best shots of my life.”

Smith made par to finish even on the back side for a six-over 76 on the swampy C.B. Macdonald course. Not too shabby after a sheepish 42 on the front nine.

“I can still remember hearing (Yale golfer) Matt Doyle saying ‘Good round,’ ” Smith says.

When Smith reached the clubhouse, he found out how good his score was from Quackenbush. “He said, ‘So how did you do, what did you shoot?’ And I said, ‘I shot 76.’ He’s like, ’76?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah — 42, 34.’ ‘He’s like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ I said, ‘I don’t know if that’s going to count for us.’ He said, ‘That might be low for us.’ “

Smith’s 76 was a team low. Only a 74 by Alex Vik, Harvard’s two-time Ivy League champ, and a 75 by Yale’s Peter Teravainen, who went to play professionally, were better. But all these years later Smith still feels as if he won the tournament that day. “I still look at that set of clubs (PowerBilts). That was best that I had played with that set in a long time. There were moments during those 18 holes that will be
with me for the rest of my life.”

Navigating Exclusive Playing Fields

Smith was on a roll after the match at Yale. Coach Quackenbush kept his medalist in the lineup, taking him to the next match, at Navy, and to the one after that — at ultra elite Aronimink Golf Club, in Newtown Square, Pa. Aronimink was the club that in 1993 would withdraw as host the PGA Championship because it refused to extend a membership to an African American. Smith was one of the first blacks to compete there.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but Aronimink was one of the premier courses in Pennsylvania,” Smith says. “I didn’t know they had a policy against members of color.”

Quackenbush didn’t mention it, and Smith treated the match like any other, shooting a 78, which made him the low Princeton player. Smith assumed that he’d play in the next event — another Harvard, Yale, Princeton match — this time hosted by Harvard at The Country Club. But Quackenbush had other plans.

“I thought at least I would play in the Harvard match,” says Smith, “but coach said, ‘No, I got some other people I want to play. I got some seniors I want to play.’ I said, ‘O.K., I guess if you’re asking me to sit out, I’ll sit out.’ He basically told me that he wanted to give other people a chance to play, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It was a decision that the coach made.”

Still, Quackenbush’s choice remains a mystery to Smith.

“To this day I wonder who else had sat out,” he says. “It turns out I might have been the only person to sit out. It would have been nice for coach to have said why, other than the fact that he wanted to play a senior.”

It’s hard to find an athlete who has never disagreed with his coach, and Smith is no exception. But it’s still hard for Smith to accept Quackenbush’s decision to sit him for the Harvard match after he had been Princeton’s medalist in two of the previous three events.

And Smith can’t ignore the fact that Quackenbush, who said he wanted to play a senior instead of Smith, a junior, elected to play sophomores instead.

The Country Club did not have a black member until 1994.

Peter Carry, Princeton ’64 and the former executive editor of Sports Illustrated, understands Quackenbush’s dilemma — how to break the mold while protecting the ones breaking it.

“A lot of clubs still don’t have black members, and certainly most private golf clubs did not have black members then,” Carry says. “I can easily imagine that even if they were allowed to play on those courses as members of the Princeton Team, they probably didn’t feel very welcome.”

Says Hyde, “We had winning teams, and [Quackenbush] played winning guys. There were places he probably couldn’t take Burton, and there were places that he probably couldn’t take me. Somehow, I didn’t feel … but Burton obviously felt it because he feels it to this day.”

Those feelings are balanced by admiration for Quackenbush, the man who let them play, the man who let Smith try out for the team, and the man who somehow got them on restricted courses.

“It was a situation that I think was unfortunate,” Smith says. He’ll never know why he was left behind on that trip to the Country Club in 1976, or why Princeton didn’t go back there to play Harvard the following year.

Coach Quackenbush and Princeton Golf: A Legacy

Smith lettered in ’76 and ’77. Coach Quackenbush, an NHL Hall of Famer who also coached Princeton’s hockey team, led the golf team from 1971 until 1985.

Quackenbush, who died on Sept. 12, 1999, left a lasting impression on Hyde, Smith and his Princeton athletes, and his legacy lives on.

“For Bill Quackenbush to play not one but two black guys at that time in the ’70s was remarkable,” Hyde says, “particularly taking us to courses that had no black golfers. I don’t even know how he handled that.”

Neither does Quackenbush’s son Scott, Princeton ’77, and a member of the golf team.

“I don’t suspect that he spent a lot of time looking at the fact that they were black vs. white,” says Scott. “They were just young people that needed to be coached and helped not just through the sport, but through life.”

Quackenbush’s voice begins to break. “I think that’s the way he treated everybody. I try all the time as a father and as the coach of my kids to be half as good as he was.”

Back at Argyle Country Club, there’s no official record that lists Rick Hyde or Burton Smith as the first two African-Americans to play golf in the Ivy League. Even after 33 years, three varsity letters and Smith’s appearance in the 1977 Ivy League championship, the distinction is not an officially recognized record.

But on this nippy fall day at Argyle, that doesn’t matter — the past lives, as does the memory of Bill Quackenbush.

“Burton and I know who the first black Ivy League golfers were,” says Hyde. But, really, three Princeton Tigers will always know.

Allison Bourne-Vanneck, a reporter for CBS News 2 in the Virgin Islands, got a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia and played golf at William and Mary as an undergraduate. She was also Miss Virgin Islands in 2005.

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