TAMPA — Eddie Smith Jr. helped build Rogers Park Golf Course.
He was there as a little kid when it was constructed, shoveling bunkers at the course that borders the Hillsborough River at 7910 N. 30th St. in Tampa.
He was among the first caddies hired when the then-segregated golf course for African Americans opened in 1952.
And he later became a decorated competitor who helped put the course on the national map.
“I don’t think I’ve gone a week without being here,” said Smith, 76, while relaxing in its clubhouse prior to playing 18 holes. “I’m not going to miss one no matter what the doctors say."
Smith was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer three months ago.
There is no cure, but chemotherapy can extend his life.
So far, Smith has decided against such treatment.
Instead, he plans to golf at the public Rogers Park every day until his body gives out.
“I’m not going to sit there for hours with all that stuff hooked up to me," he said. “I’m going to play golf. That’s all the medicine I need.”
T.J. Heidel, director of golf at Rogers Park, said Smith’s upbeat attitude is not an act.
“He hasn’t changed since the diagnosis,” Heidel said. “He still has that persona that puts smiles on people’s faces."
Smith’s friends call him Zip, a nickname earned as a childhood football player.
“I’d zip through people,” Smith said. “A coach laid the name on me and it stayed."
Still, the first time he picked up a golf club, Smith said, he knew it was the sport for him.
“You can play good one day and can’t hit a bull in the butt with a bale of hay the next," he said. "Sometimes the ball won’t go right, but the next day everything goes right. There is no other sport like that.”
The city acquired the land for Rogers Park in 1947. Black residents initially used it for picnics in that era of segregation. The golf course was added five years later.
Friends told Smith that the city was looking for construction workers of all ages to build the course that would be the second in the state for African-Americans.
When the course was complete, Smith learned caddies were paid to carry bags.
“There were no carts back then,” Smith said. “I was just a kid who had never played golf, and I didn’t want to be a liability, so I kept quiet and I listened. I learned what I needed and practiced."
Adult golfers initially gave Smith enough old clubs to cobble together a set.
When he was 12, he purchased a used, matched set of clubs from a man for whom he regularly caddied.
“It was $12,” Smith said. “I paid him a dollar a week for 12 weeks.”
He gave up caddying after graduating from Middleton High School and taking a job as a yard manager for CSX railroad. But he kept golfing.
He won the state amateur title in 1962 at Rogers Park at the age of 18.
“The youngest entry in the tournament,” a Tampa Tribune article reads, “he came back from a three-stroke first round deficit to fire a 36-hole total of 152.”
The PGA’s color barrier was broken in 1961 by Charlie Sifford.
But even then, it was difficult for African Americans to make the tour, Smith said, so he traveled the nation to compete in tournaments for blacks.
“Nashville, Winston-Salem, Virginia, New Jersey, Connecticut,” he said. “In Miami, I played against Joe Louis," in the North-South Winter Golf Tournament, considered the most prestigious of the African American competitions.
But Rogers Park remained his home course.
Other black professional golfers vacationing in Tampa would stop there to take on Smith, including PGA stars Sifford, according to Tribune archives, and Jim Dent.
Larry Doby, Major League Baseball’s second black player, also frequented Rogers Park and took lessons from Smith.
“Everybody who was anybody golfed here," Smith said.
Still, golf director Heidel said that Smith “is the face of Rogers Park,” now operated by the Tampa Sports Authority.
That popularity was evident in October when the course held a fundraiser to help with Smith’s medical bills. Nearly 100 players paid $40 each to play nine holes.
Smith came in second.
“Other sports have age limits, but not golf. That’s why it’s great,” he said. “I don’t feel sick. Maybe it’s because I won’t let my mind rest on that crap. I keep on moving forward.”
On the day he was diagnosed, Smith said, his doctor asked if he needed a moment to collect himself.
“I said, ‘Draw blood and do what you got to do,’" said Smith. “I had to get out of there. I had 18 holes to play.”