NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — Willie Holmes is a local golf legend you’ve probably never heard of. He’s part of a group that helped pave the way for Black golfers to play in the New Haven area, dating back to the 1940s.
News 8’s Keith Kountz time with Willie Holmes on this week’s Connecticut Up Close.
Holmes is the oldest active member of the Knickerbocker Golf Club of New Haven. The club was founded in 1944 to give Black players a place to gather before and after rounds when the welcome mat wasn’t exactly put out for golfers of color at area clubs.
Holmes learned the game as a kid in Newport News, Virginia.
“And we lived near a golf course, probably within walking less than a mile. And so I used to go out, and I see these guys on the golf course and have the fancy clothes, particularly the knickers. That’s all. I like that,” Holmes said.
After getting some tips from a local pro, it wasn’t long before Holmes was the one giving older players advice on how to lower their scores.
“When they finally let me caddy, I started giving these same tips to the rich people,” Holmes said. “Rich guys, white guys, most millionaires. So I said I was teaching millionaires at 12 or 14 years old and realized.”
Willie went to New Haven after serving in the military and attending college. The Knickerbocker Club sponsored top tournaments in those early years, bringing the nation’s best black players to New Haven.
With stars like Lee Elder, the first African-American to compete in the Masters, and celebrities like the Harlem Globetrotters, Meadowlark, Lemon and international tennis star Althea Gibson.
Although never professional, Holmes was quite the player at his peak, shooting consistently in the mid-70s. Today, he’s still a fixture at the club, always ready and willing to help people taking up the game, saying, “I got get through this thing.”
The Knickerbocker Club is still active and this day, holding events, parties and fundraisers. It currently has a membership of about 80 golfers, and Holmes is still very much part of the action.