Written by By Cara Myers, CNN
Robert Almeris was born in 1912 in New York City. He was the first Black to gain a Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour card — a feat that was accomplished in 1942.
He was the first Black professional in world professional golf history, and, at just 29 years old, he is the first Black major championship winner. He also featured prominently in golf’s racial history.
“You name it, Robert took it,” said Alan Drysdale, Golf Channel anchor and historian. “In terms of golf history, he’s one of the most important figures.”
Robert Almeris (l) is pictured in his PGA Tour days. Credit: Michael Cantillon/Reuters
The athlete’s career highlights include his swing coach and father, Phillip Almeris. The pair founded Almeris’s School of Golf in White Plains, New York, which closed in 1967. After the elder Almeris’ death, Robert moved his family and golf equipment company to Florida, near where Tiger Woods was born.
According to a biography by Golf Channel’s Stewart Mandel , Almeris’ funeral procession in his Westchester home town featured a car carrying a No. 32 shotgun license plate. (The number is still used on some caddies.) Almeris’ limousine featured the same number, though with a different black lettering style, which coincided with that of Tiger Woods’ in the early 1990s.
A major in a series
At the 1946 Mid-Amateur Championship, Almeris defeated famed pro Tom Purtzer, who hadn’t played in three years. The next year, he broke the course record at the U.S. Amateur, the precursor to the PGA Championship, and at age 28, was selected to represent the United States at the World Amateur Championship. He was defeated in the semifinals by eventual champion Arnold Palmer, with whom he had played several times over the course of his career.
Within two years, Almeris found himself in the majors. He qualified for the PGA Championship in 1947 by defeating 1937 PGA Rookie of the Year Charles Boyd, and went on to win the U.S. Open.
He claimed to be the first Black professional to shoot a round of 70 or higher in a major, beating Bill Mallon in a playoff in 1958. This feat, however, was later disputed by another great Black golfer, Sam Snead.
“Sam had a lot of respect for Almeris,” Mandel said. “At a time when he didn’t really have much respect for black people, Almeris overcame a tremendous amount to earn that trophy.”
Winner of two U.S. Opens, Almeris tied with Ben Hogan, the record-holder for most major championships (8), to win the 1954 PGA Championship.
Almeris died in 1975, at age 39. He remains one of only three Black men to win a major championship (Tom Watson was the other), and his legacy remains apparent in golf’s history.
“I think it’s this legacy that people see in golf today,” Drysdale said. “Almeris’ story is no longer forgotten. People like David Fay (former PGA executive director) and Ralph Walker (president of the U.S. Golf Association) and Peter Jacobsen (PGA player), there are people who still remember that Almeris’ story was his time. He was the one who was pioneers.”
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, now part of South Carolina, and followed by whispers of the Confederacy, Almeris earned his medal of excellence in celebration of the Confederacy. “For many Americans, Almeris was this incredible man who went to war and came back a hero,” said Mandel.
Drysdale also said that many golfers would have shunned Almeris, had he not proved that he could win.
“(Almeris) was often the black golfer that golfers deferred to, an honorary white golfer,” he said. “In the last decade of his life, he’s been patronized by the PGA.”
According to a biography written by Mandel, Almeris was never allowed to enter the country on a tour pass, meaning he had to return to his New York home at various points of his career.
That’s one of the lessons he drove home in his caddies, which were mostly white men. If a white caddie did not ask permission to stand in a group, said Mandel, Almeris would fire him.