Ethel Funches, black women's golf champion, dies at 96

Ethel Funches, center, appears at a trophy presentation in 1953.
Ethel Funches, center, appears at a trophy presentation in 1953. "Between 1950 and 1980, Ethel Funches was the best of the best," says author M. Mikell Johnson. (Afro-american Newspaper)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ethel Funches was six days short of her 48th birthday when she teed off against Althea Gibson in the quarterfinals of the 1961 black women's golf national championship.

Gibson, the tennis champion who had recently traded in her racket for a set of clubs, was famous. Mrs. Funches, who was a cafeteria manager at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, was not. But what Mrs. Funches lacked in renown she made up for with a long drive, an elegant chip shot and a fierce distaste for losing.

"My name is Ethel P. Funches," she was fond of saying. "The 'P' is for powerful."

Mrs. Funches not only won the match against Gibson, she also captured seven national titles and, during an amateur career that spanned more than 30 years, went on to win so many tournament trophies that she had to set aside the basement of her Northeast Washington home to hold them all.

"Between 1950 and 1980, Ethel Funches was the best of the best," said M. Mikell Johnson, author of "The African American Woman Golfer: Her Legacy." "She would have been identified as a phenom according to the standards of today."

Mrs. Funches died Jan. 6 of cardiovascular disease at a D.C. nursing home. She was 96.

During Mrs. Funches's era, black golfers were unwelcome at tony country clubs and whites-only professional tournaments. They played in the United Golfers Association, a black league organized in the 1920s. Men played for money; women for pride. Mrs. Funches won more UGA championships than anyone before or since, but her stardom was confined to the segregated links on which she played.

"She used to whip all the other women," said Levelle "Reds" Anderson, 94, who played at Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington for decades.

If the stories that circulate among the District's old-time golfers are to be believed, she occasionally whipped men, too: Playing with one fellow who scoffed at female golfers, she served up five consecutive birdies and shot the course 1 under par. Her handicap was in the single digits; the exact number a matter of debate.

"I just know she was a good golfer," Anderson said.

Her passion for golf began as an accident of marriage. Ethel Powers, a South Carolina native, settled in Washington as a young woman and married Eugene Funches, an elevator attendant at the National Geographic Society. He played golf, and she wanted to learn -- she was not the type of wife, after all, to sit home on weekends.

In the early 1940s, Mrs. Funches joined the Wake Robin Golf Club, thought to be among the oldest black women's golf clubs in the country. She studied the veteran ladies' games, but it was her husband who taught her how to putt.

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