MERIDEN — Meriden’s Frank Eaton is 78 and is playing some of the best golf of his life.
Eaton, an African American, first picked up the game as a 9- or 10-year-old in his native North Carolina in the 1950s. During a time before golf carts, the caddies at that time were mainly Black children, according to Eaton.
That was how he discovered the game. He caddied for a tobacco tycoon, Harold Beasley, and also picked up some pointers along the way.
“I lived a mile or two from the golf course and I would make 50 cents for being a caddie,” Eaton said. “Fifty cents was a lot of money back then. I could go to a movie, get popcorn, soda and a hot dog and still have money left over”
In addition to getting paid, Eaton also learned how to hold a club and properly hit a golf ball. He made his own “golf sticks,” as he called them, put a tin cup in two areas near his home and hit a ball back and forth.
A few years later, he moved to Long Island with his sister. Her neighbor was a semi-pro golfer and Eaton latched on with him to go to the driving range and courses. In his later teens he moved to Stamford, acquired his first set of golf clubs and played his first round of 18 holes.
“My first ever round I shot a 97,” Eaton recalled. “No one believed I had never played before. By the next year I was shooting in the high 80s, the following year I was in the low 80s. Three or four years later I was in the 70s.”
When he was 22 years old, he finally shot even par.
“The next day I broke my neck in a car accident,” Eaton said. “I was temporarily paralyzed on my left side and I was in the hospital for three months.”
During his first round three months after the accident, in 1964 at Hubbard Heights municipal course in Stamford, which is now E. Gaynor Brennan golf course, he recorded a hole in one still wearing a neck and back brace. The first of nine in his career.
Eaton fully recovered and was back shooting under par again.
“I was so good but I had no money,” Eaton said. “I came along at the wrong time. No Blacks were playing on Tour and you can’t play on Tour if you have no money.”
Eaton did find some inspiration at Hubbard Heights. He crossed paths with the man who broke the Major League Baseball color barrier, Jackie Robinson. Robinson, who lived in North Stamford, played at the municipal course after not being allowed to be a member at the High Ridge Country Club, a course he played many times as a guest.
“I played with Jackie after he retired from baseball...” Eaton said. “He lived about a half mile from the course. They didn’t let him play as a member at the Country Club, so he had to play public courses.
Jackie was good,” Eaton added. “He could play and shoot even par.”
Eaton turned pro in 1967 and was playing regularly in Black golf tournaments along the East Coast in the United Golfers Association. He would total more than 150 career tournament wins. But it wasn’t easy at first.
“The first year I turned pro I played in six or seven tournaments and played well until the last three holes and I didn’t make a quarter,” Eaton said. “I was nervous about making money and my wife said we couldn’t afford me playing.”
The next year he went back on the tour and won the first tournament that year in Springfield, Mass.
“I made $300 and that was more than I was making in 40 hours of work in a week,” Eaton said. “That was like a million dollars for me. The next week I played at Keney Park in Hartford and won it with a 65 and won $600. After that I never looked back.”
Eaton, Pernell win in Keney Park Golf Mon, Sep 14, 1970 – 26 · Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) · Newspapers.com
Meanwhile, Eaton was working in the computer center for Union Trust Bank. He lived in Stamford, New Haven and Middletown before settling in Meriden.
Eaton became a fixture in tournaments around the state and New England for the next few decades. One of his crowning achievements on the course was claiming Connecticut Section PGA Senior Open championships in 1995 and 1996.
Eaton - 1995 - page 1 Sun, Sep 10, 1995 – 1 · Record-Journal (Meriden, Connecticut) · Newspapers.com
He also had stops on the New England Circuit and played all of the big open tournaments. He also played in the Florida Mini-Tour.
His best round ever was Sept. 10, 1989. He carded a course record 11-under-par 61 at Stamford’s Red Course at Fairchild Wheeler. He also holds course records at Hubbard Heights (Stamford), Keney Park (Hartford), Sterling Farms (Stamford), Alling Memorial (New Haven), Banner Lodge (Moodus) and Fairchild Wheeler (Bridgeport)
Eaton said there were as many as 150 Black golfers during his heyday.
“Now there only a couple of Black pro golfers,” Eaton said.
The main reason for fewer Black golfers compared to back then, Eaton said, is because of the lack of caddies.
“Years ago all caddies were Black,” Eaton said. “That’s how they got into golf. But when carts started coming in, caddies were shut down.”
In addition to playing, Eaton has given back at youth programs.
“Anywhere I do a youth program, 98 percent of the kids are white and maybe there are three Black kids,” Eaton said. “When I ask Black kids about golf, they say it’s too expensive and they would rather play football or basketball.”
Eaton feels his race was a big reason he never made it to the highest level.
“If I had been white, they would have put me on the Tour and you know damn well I could make money,” Eaton said.
Eaton said he never felt outright racism at tournaments.
“Many tournaments I’m with about 130 other guys and I was the only one that wasn’t white,” Eaton said. “I was by myself. I knew people used to look at me. They didn’t say anything, but when I walked in, everyone stopped eating and looked. I would tell myself, ‘They can’t rattle me.’ I didn’t let it get to me.”
Eaton is married to his second wife, Juanita. He has four children: Frankie Jr., Dean, Jere and Kim.
Eaton said he’s playing great golf now. He plays three or four times a week and said he’s gotten better with age. He said he’s shot under his age every year since he turned 66. He’s a 2 handicap now.
“If I shot a 78 now, I would be mad as hell,” Eaton said.
Eaton travels every Thursday throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts with a group of 24 guys in the Players Club.
“I wish I was 25 years younger the way I’m playing right now,” Eaton said. “It’s unbelievable. I guess I’m blessed.”
Eaton is also a member of the New Haven-based Knickerbocker Golf Club. He was honored by the club in the 75th anniversary ceremony in 2019.
“That was one of my big moments,” Eaton said. “I help the best I can with the club. I teach for free. I never charge.”
The Knickerbocker Club, a predominantly African-American group, was formed in 1944. The Knickerbockers are the second-oldest African-American golf club in the country, behind Wake Robin Golf Club in Washington, DC, a female club started in 1937. The Knickerbockers currently has 43 members.
Knickerbockers past president Willie Holmes said Eaton is “one of the greatest golfers to come out of Connecticut.” Holmes is 92 and still plays regularly. “I’ve known him for a number of years. He’s a great golfer, father and gentleman. He’s been instrumental as far as promoting golf to the younger generation.”