Thelma was a fierce competitor and in 1947 she won her first national amateur title in the UGA Championship in Philadelphia – a title she would win four more times in 1949, 1954, 1955 and 1956. However, there was drama around his victory in 1956. Once again held in Philadelphia at Cobbs Creek Golf Club, the course of Charlie Sifford, the tournament began at six o’clock sharp in the morning. Thelma’s opponent, Alma Arvin, showed up on time and had played nine holes before Thelma arrived. Under UGA rules, Thelma should have been disqualified.
“UGA rules clearly state that any player who is late for a game automatically forfeits the game. In this case, the UGA Rules Committee has reneged and ruled the original game null and void,” remembered Thelma. The women did it again and Thelma won the match 1-up over Arvin, who graciously conceded a title that was rightfully his. However, due to the failure of the UGA rulebook, Thelma had solidified herself as a champion golfer and one of the best of her generation.
But before the drama, victory and glory of rubbing shoulders with the likes of champion boxer Joe Lewis, Thelma married (1945) and divorced (1949) husband Russell Cowans. She took his name and kept it for the rest of her life. Russell was a golf enthusiast and a writer for the Detroit Tribune. He often wrote about Thelma and her accomplishments, even after the divorce.
After their separation, Thelma moved to Los Angeles where she became a real estate agent and the first black member of the El Rancho Golf Club. In LA, Thelma met and played with up-and-coming golfers Lee Elder and Charlie Sifford. Sifford credited Cowans with helping him with his putt.
Thelma Cowans seemed like the kind of woman who lived eight or nine different lives in her 77 years. She, like so many other black women, had to fight for every ounce of success she gained. His dramatic UGA championship debacle in 1956 was less about someone who was inconsiderate and more about someone who was willing to bet on himself and win. It’s unfortunate that this came at the expense of another black woman who was equally deserving, but we have to wonder why it was necessary for these women to do this at dawn in the first place.
Thelma continued her golfing career with her sister, Theresa, back in Detroit in the 1960s, even after the establishment of the LPGA, which elected to be desegregated from the charter. Thelma has never played in an LPGA sanctioned event. Her son-in-law speculated that she would have been the first black woman on the tour.
She was cemented as a Detroit legend until the day she died in February 1990. She was a member of the Detroit African American Sports Hall of Fame and the UGA Hall of Fame.
She was a remarkable woman with a remarkable story – a story that should never die. Acting like a founder means recognizing those who came before us and understanding the sacrifices it took to bring us to this point in time. Thelma Cowans, and so many other black women, often risked their safety to play golf. This should never be taken lightly.