Charles Michael Coffey stands next to his grandson, surrounded by the curated photographs, newspaper clippings, and mementos of a man who taught him so much about golf and life.
An hour earlier on this Monday morning at Corica Park Golf Course in Alameda, Coffey’s childhood friends had stood in the same room, reflecting on their selfless Oakland golf instructor, the late Lucious Bateman, whose race barred him from the many accolades he helped them to achieve. Coffey missed the social mixer, where journalists soaked in stories of a Black man who molded a British Open champion at a rundown driving range near the Oakland Airport. Coffey didn’t hear a dedication speech from Gary Plato, one of the event organizers, who called Bateman “the finest teacher this game has seen.” He wasn’t present for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that led a bustling crowd into the newly christened Bateman Museum.
By now, the rest of the Bateman Boys, a nickname given decades ago to Coffey and the other men bonded by an instructor who gave free lessons and golf trips to kids in exchange for them picking up golf balls at his driving range, had crossed the course’s parking lot for the start of the inaugural Lucious Bateman Tournament and fundraiser.
Coffey, 72, and his 29-year-old grandson, Marquis Williams, had the museum to themselves.
Their solitary moment was spent reflecting on a man raised in the Jim Crow South, who in the 1920s served as a caddie and shot the course record at Edgewater Golf Club in Biloxi, Mississippi; and who, after serving in the Air Force during WWII, worked in the Oakland shipyards and set more course records across the Bay Area before devoting his life to teaching kids, until his death in 1972.
Bateman, like Coffey, was a Black man in a historically white sport.
“What I remember most about Bateman was his patience,” Coffey said, fighting tears. “Each club he gave me I had to master before he gave me another. It was two years before I used that wood. At night, the boys would hang around the kerosene heaters (at the driving range), and you’d hear the stories.”
Growing up in East Oakland, Coffey would carry his clubs to Airway Fairways, where the Hilton Oakland Airport hotel now sits, and learn from an instructor renowned across the world for teaching 1964 British Open champion Tony Lema of San Leandro, three-time winner Dick Lotz of Oakland, and many other PGA Tour winners and future PGA of America instructors.
Coffey had kept in touch with the Bateman Boys and, months ago, received a call from Randy Herzberg about the tournament, which raised money on Sept. 18 for underprivileged children to play golf. Herzberg, among others, had founded the Lucious Bateman Foundation earlier this year to launch the charity tournament.
Herzberg, now in his late 70s, began receiving instruction from Bateman in 1961 and recalls Coffey as the only Black child under Bateman’s tutelage. “He was disappointed because he rarely got any Black kids to take up the game,” Herzberg said of his former teacher in a 2021 interview.
Bateman served as a maintenance man and instructor at Airway Fairways. He paid kids 90 cents to shag balls, Plato recalls. In return, the Bateman Boys hit range balls for free. “Many kids might have made jails instead of pars and birdies if it hadn’t been for ‘Loosh,’” Lema said in a 1965 Golf Digest article about his instructor, three years before Lema died in a plane crash.
There were two courses Coffey often played in his youth. “Galbraith (now Metropolitan Golf Links, on Doolittle Drive in East Oakland), which they called ‘Hustlers Haven’ for the brothers,” said Coffey, referring to it being a popular course for Black players, “and Alameda, which was mostly a country club. (Bateman) bought me a membership in Alameda,” Coffey recalls of the mostly white club.
“They were pissed,” he said of the other club members. “He told all of them, ‘Don’t you even touch him.’”
Paul Grant never took lessons from Bateman, but as a Black teenager in 1968, he attended Bateman’s free Saturday clinics in Alameda, where the range has long been named in Bateman’s honor. “The hat, the cane, the cigar,” is what Grant recalls of his brief encounters.
Three years later, while attending Lowell High School, Grant was the only Black player to qualify for the San Francisco high school championships. The 1971 event was originally scheduled at The Olympic Club, a private course that didn’t have Black and female members until the 1990s. With Grant in the field, however, the tournament was moved to Harding Park, a public course.
“They called me the N-word on the fifth hole,” Grant recalls. “My own teammates taunted me.”
He lost his confidence and, after trailing by just one stroke after a first-round 78, failed to break 84 in the final four rounds. Grant understood the hardships of Black golfers at the time. “I was following Charles Sifford, Lee Elder, Pete Brown, all the Black players on the PGA,” he said. “They would literally throw shit at them. We weren’t allowed to play on certain golf courses.”
Grant played at Morehouse, a historically Black college, where he regained confidence on the course. He earned a degree in communications, became a professional videographer, and now resides in Emeryville. He volunteered for Monday’s museum grand opening.
“I got to do something for Bateman,” he told himself when hearing about the event. “I hope this does something for Black golfers.”
A brilliant player held back by racial discrimination in professional golf
When the PGA’s discriminatory Caucasian-only clause was repealed in 1961, long after Bateman’s professional playing hopes had passed, clubs requested him as a teaching pro. Bateman stayed at the Oakland driving range.
“I could shoot in the 60s every day,” Bateman told The San Francisco Chronicle late in life. “But, heck, I gave no thought to joining the pro tour. They didn’t allow colored players then.”
Herzberg, who said he was “almost a sidekick” to Bateman, said the man rarely talked to the kids about race or politics or his early 1900s childhood in the South. But Herzberg does recall one conversation when Bateman told him about a time “he saw one of his best friends hanged for being with a white woman.”
Herzberg became a teaching pro at Corica Park in Alameda, like his mentor.
“There are so many people of color who want to play this game, at the highest level and beneath,” said Umesh Patel, owner of Greenway Golf, which operates this Alameda complex. A day earlier, Patel watched Sahith Theegala, a fellow Indian American, capture his maiden PGA Tour victory in Napa.
“Success on the Tour is amazing,” Patel said, “but what we really want to see is every underrepresented group—minorities, women, people of different orientations—discover the game, enjoy it, and feel as comfortable as some of us who have played it for decades.”
Bateman lived with his sister in a house on 77th Avenue in East Oakland. Golf balls from his holes-in-one sat in ashtrays. After working in the shipyards, he made his living hustling on courses and giving up to 30 adult lessons per day, at $3 a pop. The kids learned for free.
“If I had to pay for golf lessons I never would have learned the game,” said Plato, who was once given $50 from Bateman to enter the only PGA Tour event of his career. He missed the cut. “If we can get every young person playing golf, the world would be a much better place.”
Robin Lynn Wilson (left), who works on the diversity and inclusion team at Corica Park Golf Course, sheds a tear while taking in the exhibit honoring Lucious Bateman on Sep 18, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz
Bateman stressed short-game practice and a compact swing to his pupils. At Airway Fairways, he put the Bateman Boys to work.
“First range pick was around 5 p.m.,” Plato recalls of their duties. “At 7 p.m. we did homework; final pick at 9. Dump five-gallon buckets of golf balls in wheelbarrows, take those in, and wash them. Fresh balls were double-striped; slightly worn balls got a red stripe; the lowest grades got blue stripes. (Owner Rig Ballard) got a lot of mileage out of those golf balls.”
Lotz, like Lema before him, played with Bateman at Lake Chabot Golf Course in the Oakland hills. During competitive rounds, Bateman would give Lotz hand signals to indicate the type of shot to play. He traveled with Bateman for mixed events with Black players who, unlike Lotz, who is white, were denied PGA access. “When you made a bad decision, he made a story out of it,” Lotz said in 2021. “‘Oh, you short-sided yourself! Oh, you made a bogey out of a birdie putt!’”
Months before his death from a heart attack in 1972, the Northern California PGA honored Bateman. A circulatory illness had limited his mobility, so the Bateman Boys gifted him an electric golf cart. The pioneering instructor has received many posthumous honors, some from organizations he was previously banned from, and two documentaries are in the works.
After a Sports Illustrated article in the 1960s chronicled Bateman’s work with Lema, curious golfers from across the country came to Oakland for lessons. But Fridays were for playing, and he’d pick up a few kids after school and take them to courses across the Bay Area.
“He’s gonna pick me!” Coffey remembers hoping, before his game was polished enough to play 18 holes. “He picked me all right … to cut that grass.
“This game is so beautiful,” Coffey continued, looking over the South Course at Corica Park. “You meet so many good people. These courses, you can eat off them.”
Coffey was eventually picked.
At Castlemont High School, he was the only Black kid to compete in the Oakland Athletic League championships at Lake Chabot. “Golf to us was a sissy sport,” he recalls the perception being among friends. He laments the violence today in Oakland, bringing up the recent story of a mother killed by a stray bullet while sleeping in her own home. He hopes coaches like Bateman can get kids off the street and onto golf courses.
“They need to get that frustration out,” he said, “and you’ll see the talent.”