Why do they call it that? Rogers Park Gold Course: A pioneering Tampa golf course

1:19 PM, Feb 21, 2013   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida -- It's an area of American life that held onto racial segregation longer than almost any other -- golf.

During this Black History Month, we're sharing the story of one of the first places to fight back against that. And it's right here in Tampa Bay.

Why do they call it Rogers Park Golf Course?

If you think a great shot down the fairway is a long drive, try driving 106 miles in a car.

That's the roundtrip young Charlie Owens faced if he wanted to play a round of golf on a Saturday afternoon.

"We came all the way from Winter Haven to play on this golf course," said Owens, who turns 83 years old this week.

Other golfers traveled from even further away. All to take a swing on this special course built in 1952 just outside Tampa's Seminole Heights and Sulphur Springs neighborhoods.

"Rogers Park Golf Course was the first black golf course that we black people could play on," Owens said. The first in all of Central Florida and one of the first in America.

"Willie Black was the golf professional here. Very nice man," Owens remembered.

Tampa Mayor Curtis Hixon gave African-American golf lover Willie Black the okay to build it. In the beginning, it wasn't much.

Trees were cut, palmettos were cleared, and fairways were shaped -- all by volunteers -- all by hand, with shovels and machetes.

A community effort is what made the original course even possible. Originally, they didn't have grass, it was cut-down bushes and weeds. And sand traps? Try dirt traps.

"It wasn't a golf course, it was a cow pasture," Owens said.

But it was theirs.

The rarest of places, where black golfers and their families were free to be themselves.

"We'd come over here and they had a clubhouse. It looked like a swap shop or pawn shop or something. Worse than that. It was terrible," Owens said.

"But at that particular time, it was good. It was better than what we had. We were just so glad to play, we could block out everything."

A respected African-American businessman, George Devoe Rogers, had just passed away. The park's name would honor him.

"To compare with golf and playing today, you wouldn't have played this golf course," Owens said. "But it was a place for us that really felt like we was in the real thing. But we didn't get to the real thing yet."

The real thing -- came when Charlie Owens was almost 40 years old. When segregation finally ended, Owens launched a new career.

It's a path he had been denied for decades: professional golfer.

On the PGA Tour and Senior Tour he played and won with skills he mastered on this Tampa course.

"That's really where I got my golf game in shape to play as well as I did," Owens said.

When he retired, Owens came back here as the new golf pro at Rogers Park Golf Course. Today it's a well-maintained course that's a pleasure to play.

And it remains a special place where all golfers, black and white, good and -- umm -- "improving," can always share a round together.

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

This weekend, St. Petersburg is holding a Black History Festival.

It's Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the GTE Community Financial Center. That's at 2190 18th Avenue South. They'll have live entertainment, giveaways, and fun stuff to do for families.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Thursday on 10 News at 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy Award-winning series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.

Follow 10 News reporter Grayson Kamm on Twitter at @graysonkamm as he travels Tampa Bay telling your stories.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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