The golf courses in San Diego, California, have challenged some of golf’s most iconic players. This year, the city was host to the US Men’s Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course, but in the early 1970s, a competitive junior golfer was just starting to make a name for herself.
At ten years old, Avis Brown-Riley—then just Avis Brown—won the 1974 Junior World Championship on the Presidio Hills Golf Course, becoming the first African American in the tournament’s history to win and hold 4 additional trophies for the tournament. Once she got a taste for success, her determination was ignited, and she continued to win more and more in her junior golf career, placing at the top of the leaderboard over 50 times, and winning 10 out of 16 tournaments before pursuing collegiate golf.
Her love for the game began early. Her father, Gordon Brown Sr, a successful amateur golfer in his own right from Charleston, South Carolina, introduced Avis and her three brothers to the sport at the age of seven.
“Just competing was fun,” said Avis. “It was enjoyable. I loved it. I was out on the golf course with my brothers, and of course the San Diego Junior Golf Association was wonderful because it allowed us to compete and meet other kids.”
Avis grew up in Southeast San Diego, which is predominantly Black and Hispanic, but even still it was very rare that she saw other Black people playing golf. While she and her brothers played golf wherever they could—the putting green they built in their backyard and a little homemade 9-hole course in their neighborhood—golf courses in the early ‘70s were still segregated.
“There were certain golf courses we couldn’t go to or even go in the pro shop,” recalled Avis. “So, you can imagine, as a little girl at the age of 7, not understanding racism. It was there, but I focused on playing golf.”
With her father and brothers as mentors, Avis’s love for the game spiraled into a bright, competitive spirit and that passion to be her very best inspired her to attend United States International University on a collegiate golf scholarship where she won rookie of the year her freshman year and was eventually ranked #25 in the nation.
Ten-year-old Avis Brown with her 1974 Junior World Championship trophy
After graduating college with a degree in communications, a National Minority Collegiate Golf tournament win under her belt, and a few years out in the working world, Avis set out to try her luck at earning her LPGA Tour card by competing on the Futures Tour—now known as the Epson Tour. Though her playing ability was never in question, she didn’t always feel welcome as she traveled, often alone, through the Southern States.
“That was quite an experience, because coming from the West Coast, it was a little different traveling down south on the East Coast. It was an eyeopener for me because during that time, I did not realize that discrimination and racism was as powerful as it was.”
During the four years Avis was on the mini tours from 1987-1990, she found herself being the only African American female trying for the LPGA and the efforts took a toll.
“It was a different feeling being the only African American woman playing out there at that time. It was very, very challenging for me to travel, to perform, and look out for myself throughout my travel, because I had run into so many different situations that frightened me,” said Avis. “So, I would always make sure I arrived at my destination early—before nighttime, of course, because traveling alone was very dangerous—and I always made sure to let the receptionist at the hotel know that I was by myself and to just look out for me.”
Eventually, after 25 years of playing competitive golf and struggling to get through to the final qualifying round to make it on the LPGA Tour, as only the third African American woman to attempt to attain an LPGA card at the time, Avis decided it was time to answer a different call and left golf behind to pursue a career in the corporate world.
She had a happy career, working her way up to becoming an Operations Manager for FEDEX, but in 2010, something happened to Avis that completely changed her life.
“I made the decision to retire early because I had experienced breast cancer,” said Avis.
Her diagnosis was Invasive Carcinoma, and the disease progressed from Stage 1 in January to stage 4 by May of the same year. As soon as her doctors caught it, she began a regimen of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. The cancer, sudden and severe, challenged her in ways she had never faced.
“The only reason I was able to get through that challenging time and battle breast cancer was because of the mental state of mind that I had achieved through playing golf,” said Avis. “It kept me mentally strong and mentally tough. There were times after the injections of the chemo where I wanted to die. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is a horrible experience.’ But I said to myself, ‘Avis, don’t you give up. You’re a champion. Don’t let this get the best of you. You can achieve this, and you will succeed.’”
She attributes her mental fortitude to golf and her faith in God, believing her life was spared to lead a life as a force of good.
Now in remission, golf still remained just a hobby, but a passion she didn’t realize how much she missed until following up with friends who had made golf into a career as LPGA-certified Teaching and Club Professionals. She recalled getting a call one day and having a conversation that made her realize maybe the chapter on her golf career was not as closed as she had previously thought.
Avis Brown-Riley at the driving range
She was invited to try out her skills to join the LPGA Professionals—the LPGA’s Teaching Division—in 2017, and a whole new world of possibility opened up. Her lifelong dreams were starting to come true.
“It brings a tear to my eyes because golf has always been my passion,” said Avis. “It has been my dream to be an LPGA player because I worked so hard through my junior golf career, collegiate career, and amateur career.”
She wanted to be like her role model, Renee Powell, remembering the times when she was a little girl watching her play on television and dreaming of one day following in her footsteps. And while she left playing competitively, three years after starting the LPGA certification process Avis now feels like she can finally put the official stamp on fulfilling her LPGA dreams.
“It touches me like no one could ever believe, because I never gave up,” said Avis. “I returned to my passion. When I think about my amazing life, and how much I enjoy playing golf, and working, and being successful at both, it tells a lot about who I am as a person. And I believe God has spared me my life for a purpose, and that is to serve, and to be able to introduce this wonderful game to young girls and women so they too can play this sport, go out and have fun, engage, and meet new friends.”
Avis Brown-Riley with a copy of her book
Today—like every day—Avis is living life to the fullest as an author, motivational speaker, golf instructor, and even contestant on and episode of ABC’s Holey Moley. She also, gives back to her community, introducing the game to underserved girls and women in the Southern California area.
“My family and I run the San Diego Inner City Junior Golf Foundation. We give back to the city and we introduce the game of golf to the inner-city kids. I just love being able to introduce the game and let the kids know there is another sport out there, and it’s called golf. And golf can do so many things—so many benefits. It builds you to who you are. It helps build character and it builds personality. And that’s what I’ve learned over my 48 years playing golf. And it’s something that no one can take away from you, and that’s what I love most about it.”
And while she has a busy schedule, she has no plans of slowing down. On top of her work in the community, she is writing a book, working on an apparel line, and working in the pro shop at Torrey Pines Golf Course as a part-time shop assistant. Working at a championship course is one thing, but this position is a bit more of a homecoming than it first appeared.
One day, she intended to play the course again, having previously won the San Diego Amateur there in 1982, and was looking through the pro shop when she discovered a wall of photographs of past Junior World Champions. She got the attention of the attendant and asked where her picture was.
“I told them I was Avis Brown, I won the Junior World in 1974. And they said, ‘You’re Avis! Where have you been? We haven’t seen you in years! We need to get you on the wall.’”
So, Avis sent in her championship photo from 1974 and visited the course a few days later to see her spot among the other junior champions, but there was a little bonus to the story, because in 1991, another future golf icon had also won the Junior World Championship.
And Avis could not have been more thrilled. “Not only am I on the wall, I’m on the wall next to Tiger Woods! It’s super cool.”
Junior World Wall of Champions at Torrey Pines
With an accomplished junior golf career, an impressive collegiate career, and a stunning comeback to golf, Avis’s story shows that the path to fulfilling your dreams is never a straight line. Instead, despite any hardships and obstacles that come your way, your path is what you make of it, limited only by your passion, drive, and perspective. It is never too late to achieve your dreams.
“I’m still friends with many of the girls that I played junior golf with—they’re LPGA members—and they say to me, ‘Avis, we’re so excited that you’re back after 25 years.’ And I’m glad I’m back too.”