SALISBURY — George Hargrave steers his golf cart close to the treeline, down the hill from the tee box on Hole No. 11.
Pretty soon, he stops the cart, grabs a 4-iron and disappears into the thicket. “Here's two,” he says, soon emerging with a pair of golf balls in his hand.
Hargrave has even better luck in the woods off Hole No. 12. Players slice into these tall trees a lot, trying to avoid the backwaters of the South Yadkin River on their left.
From the fairway, Hargrave sounds like a herd of deer going through the brambles. But within 5 minutes, he comes out with eight balls, which he'll add to the hundreds of recycled ones he sells for 50 cents to a dollar out of his car's trunk.
Hargrave, 83, drives to Foxwood Golf Club every day. His office is a plastic chair and table under the front porch roof. He has a wash bucket close by for cleaning up the balls he finds.
At the course, Hargrave's pay translates to the golf balls he finds and knowing he could play a round for free if he wanted. He tends to the golf carts and regales those who'll listen with stories of his own days as a golfer.
“I've heard every story five times a day for 10 years,” says Foxwood manager Josh Mabe, but he's not complaining. Folks who know Hargrave's back story have huge respect for his game and consider him a trailblazer for African-American golfers.
Hargrave starred in golf while he was an enlisted man with the U.S. Navy from 1947-57, competing in locations around the world. He played weekends in a Negro golf league, though the prize money was abysmal.
Hargrave also was among a handful of African-American players who broke the color barrier at public courses in Rowan County in the 1960s. He was among the first black players to compete in the Crowder/Dorsett Memorial 4-Ball Tournament, which remains a cherished Labor Day tradition at the Country Club of Salisbury.
Hargrave won the Labor Day tournament's Senior Division four times — twice with Charlie Gillispie and twice with Charles Valley.
Not many people can say they played a round of golf at Pebble Beach with Sam Snead. Hargrave did just that while he was stationed in the Navy at Monterrey, Calif. Back in an age of contradictions, he also caddied for Snead in Salisbury when the wall against black players was still firmly in place.
“If you grew up with it, you lived with it,” Hargrave says. “I never had no problems in all my days.”
• • •
Besides hanging out at Foxwood every day, Hargrave still cleans the North Main Street law offices of Kluttz, Reamer, Hayes, Randolph, Adkins and Carter five nights a week.
Glenn S. Hayes, one of the firm's attorneys, describes Hargrave as “just a prince of a human being.” Hayes has high regard for Hargrave's place in local golf history and how good his game was at one time.
“Everybody who knows golf knows George,” Hayes says. “He's got the kind of swing we wished we all had.”
From what people have told him about George's game, Mabe is convinced “if they had allowed blacks on tour back then, he would have been a pro.”
As recently as six years ago, Hargrave was shooting par, Mabe says, and he often could beat his age by five or six strokes. But Hargrave, who has four bags of clubs for sale in his car, says he hardly plays today, partly because he doesn't like the way others bend the rules.
“I can see you moved it in the fairway,” he complains. “I can play. I just don't care to play. How can you beat somebody like that?”
When he was younger, Hargrave could hit a good draw. With age, he found he was doing better with a cut. His secret to scoring — staying in the fairway.
He always reveled in putting a good lick on a drive or long iron.
“But I can't hit it hardly any more,” he says, “and that takes the fun out of it.”
• • •
Hargrave grew up in the Jersey City neighborhood of Salisbury as the seventh of 14 children. His late father, Theodore, was a longtime janitor at Catawba College.
George learned to golf as a young teenager caddying for some of the better white players at the Country Club of Salisbury, a Donald Ross-designed course.
In the days of segregation, black caddies were allowed to play the Country Club course for free on Mondays.
“After we cleaned the pool, the rest of the day was ours,” Hargrave says.
The white kids who were his age also might sneak Hargrave and other caddy friends onto Country Club holes out of the clubhouse view for nickel-and-dime games — generally, holes 11 to 15, he recalls.
Hargrave became friends with guys such as Bud Mickle, John Isenhour Jr. and Jimmy and Haden Hurley. He caddied for the likes of attorney Clarence Kluttz and radio station owner Harry Welch, a highly respected amateur who won the Carolinas Golf Association Championship, was a founder of the Labor Day tournament and was part of winning Labor Day teams five times.
Welch became a mentor of sorts for Hargrave and allowed George to use his clubs on those Mondays when caddies could play the Country Club course. Gillispie received the same kind of tutelage from A.D. Dorsett, another local golfing star.
At the country club, the black caddies carried clubs for women in the mornings, men in the afternoon. Some members only liked to play with certain caddies, Hargrave says.
• • •
As soon as Hargrave finished J.C. Price High School, he enlisted in the Navy, entering the Reserves first. He chose the Navy because he caddied for the Navy recruiting officer in town.
He tried to enlist in 1945, toward the end of World War II, asking President Harry S. Truman in a letter to waive the age requirement. Truman wrote him back saying he couldn't let him enlist just yet because he was too young.
Over his 10 years in the Navy, Hargrave would serve in places such as Africa, Panama, Guam, the Philippines. Stateside, he ended up in locations such as San Diego and Monterrey, Calif., Pensacola, Fla., and Norfolk, Va.
Often, golf was the reason.
In Panama, his longest stay, he married a native girl while he was still a teenager. Because of continued segregation practices in the States, especially the South, Hargrave's wife refused to leave Panama.
Hargrave says he couldn't blame her. They divorced. Hargrave has been married about 30 years to his second wife, Ida.
When the Navy learned how good Hargrave was at golf, he pretty much found ways to play full-time. “That's all I done,” he says.
There were jobs in between the golf. In Monterrey, he helped to build a driving range for the Navy, and he took up tickets at the base movie theater at night. But other times he was golfing at places such as Pebble Beach, where a pro-am event once paired him with Snead.
• • •
In Guam, he drove a Navy school bus in the morning and played golf the rest of the day. By coincidence, but also because they were good golfers, Gillispie and Hargrave found themselves playing on the same Navy golf team in Guam.
Hargrave also was a member of the All-Navy team that played in tournaments from coast to coast.
When he quit the Navy in 1957, a man in California offered to be his sponsor and help him with a professional career. But first Hargrave returned to Salisbury flush with his money for mustering out.
“I came home, spent that money, and that was it,” he says. “They say you drink the water in Salisbury and you can't leave. That must be true.”
For a time, Hargrave returned to caddying at the country club, and was on the bag for some of the Labor Day winners. “They depended on me,” he says.
Golfer Jim West eventually got Hargrave a full-time job at Flowers Bakery, where he worked for 30 years.
• • •
Before the public courses in Rowan County allowed black players, Hargrave played on courses in Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
A Negro golf league offered tournament prize money of only $300 for the top five finishers. Hargrave says he never won more than $50.
Some frustration set in for Hargrave back home when it came to golf.
“Everybody you worked with can play, but you can't,” he recalls of his resentment at the time.
Hargrave and friends eventually sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department asking why African-Americans still could not play on the county's public golf courses.
Afterward, an FBI agent came to his door one evening and woke him. He essentially asked one question, as Hargrave remembers it. Did the golf courses serve food? They did.
Within a week, Hargrave says, black players were playing Rowan's public courses.
With the color barrier down, Hargrave, Gillispie and a handful of other black players were playing and eventually winning tournaments at Foxwood, Corbin Hills and McCanless. They also were competing in the Labor Day tournament, often qualifying for the championship division.
Gillispie, who died late last year, came to be known by some local golfers as “Mr. Hole-In-One,” thanks to 15 aces he recorded over his career.
Hargrave has three holes-in-one to his credit — one at Foxwood, one at McCanless and a controversial ace at Corbin Hills' No. 11 in 1988.
“I hit a hook in there and it jumped in the hole,” Hargrave says.
It happened during a tournament when a hole-in-one was supposed to win you a new car. But it turned out someone had failed to pay the insurance, meaning the tournament denied Hargrave his prize.
“Everybody was mad about it,” Hargrave says.
In the end, he received a sterling silver putter worth $1,000.
• • •
Hargrave goes by the nickname of “Hawkeye,” for his uncanny ability to find golf balls.
Mabe, the manager at Foxwood, says Hargrave can find 50 to 75 golf balls a day when he's really looking.
Hargrave gives out golf advice, if asked, but he doesn't have any big secrets to a good golf game.
“Practice — that's the only thing I know,” he says.
All the regular golfers at Foxwood have something to say to Hargrave.
“They just know him as a great guy,” Mabe says. “He is the nicest, most kind-hearted man I know. ... He doesn't ask for anything, and he's one of the greatest friends I've ever had.”
Hargrave often leaves his house in the morning when it's still dark and returns at night when it's dark again.
In between, he's on the lookout for golf balls and making more friends along the way.
“I just do it to have something to do,” he says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.