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Pioneering Black California golfer Frank Snow, a mentor of Tiger Woods, dies at 78

Frank Snow
(Family photo)

Frank Snow, a Black pro-am golf champion who taught scores of children the game and befriended Tiger Woods before he became the sport’s generational star, has died.

In declining health since he suffered a stroke last summer, Snow died Thursday morning of suspected heart issues at a Glendale long-term health facility, said Gracie Lott, his wife. He was 78.

An outgoing sort who loved being around people, Snow taught golf for more than 30 years at the Chester Washington and Maggie Hathaway golf courses in South Los Angeles and spent countless hours as a volunteer instructor at the Watts-Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club.

“He always wanted to groom more Black kids to the profession of golf because that made him proud when he saw Black kids out hitting balls,” said Lott. “He loved that.”

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No one delighted him more than Woods, the child prodigy whom Snow and a group of other Black golfers shepherded through his early years in the game as a result of their friendship with Woods’ father, Earl.

“They all pitched in and helped Tiger along the way,” Lott said of the Orange County native who has won 15 professional major golf championships, trailing only Jack Nicklaus’ 18 titles. “He knew Tiger before he became famous, that’s for sure.”

Tiger Woods lines up a putt in 2001
Tiger Woods lines up a putt in 2001. Frank Snow, one of Woods’ early mentors, died Thursday at 78.
(Phil Coale / Associated Press)

Snow was himself a standout golfer known for towering drives. He won a playoff in 1979 to capture a Future Touring Pros of America event in Ontario. His pinnacle came a year later when he won the Gardena Valley Open, a pro-am tournament whose field regularly included several top PGA Tour players.

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“The Gardena was one of the best tournaments anywhere,” Snow said in “Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf,” a 2000 history of Black golfers in the U.S. “The best Black players entered. Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown, Lee Elder, Bill Wright, Bill Spiller, Junior Walker, Deuce Irvin, George Johnson, Curtis Sifford, Jim Dent. Anybody who was somebody played.”

Snow had long been on the periphery of efforts to integrate the game. He was friends with Charlie Sifford, the first Black player to join the PGA Tour, and observed fellow pioneer Spiller’s triumphant moment while he was being repeatedly rebuffed in his attempt to play the game at its highest level.

In the book “A Course of Their Own,” Snow recalled Spiller being denied access to the clubhouse during the Bakersfield Open in the early 1950s. But after the last round, Snow said, Spiller “went into the clubhouse and asked the club president’s wife to dance with him. He said she got up to dance with him.”

Snow generated headlines in 1981 when he was awarded $10,000 in a civil suit involving NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown. Snow alleged that Brown had slapped him in the face, punched him in the ribs and grabbed him by the neck after squabbling over the placement of Snow’s golf ball during a tournament. Brown was convicted of misdemeanor battery in the assault and was jailed for a day, fined $500 and placed on two years’ probation.

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Born on Nov. 30, 1941, in Birmingham, Ala., Snow caddied for other golfers as a youth, sparking his lifelong love of the game. He moved to Oakland to live with his brother when he was 18 and came to Los Angeles a few years later, never leaving. Snow sold sports apparel and hawked items at the Roadium swap meet in Torrance before his retirement about a dozen years ago.

The implantation of a pacemaker in 2015 couldn’t keep Snow from his beloved Chester Washington course, where he would invariably run into longtime friend Charlie Lee.

“He was a pretty good player and he was a good friend,” said Lee, who played on the Senior PGA Tour in the late 1980s. “I argue with people all the time, and me and him had two arguments in about 50 years.”

In his final years, Snow continued to teach children the game, participating in a golf clinic at Compton College. His mementos included a picture of his most celebrated pupil.

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“To Frank,” read the inscription, “Thanks a million. Tiger Woods.”

Survivors include Lott and sisters Lola Ware, Barbara Allen and Donna Snow-Cox.


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