African-Americans and Discrimination in Golf
A Historical Look
Tiger Woods is, of course, the most
famous minority golfer in history. Both black and Asian, Woods
serves as a source of inspiration for many people of all colors
throughout the world.
Although he faced a few challenges
because of his race while growing up, for the most part Woods had
smooth sailing in that regard, as well as in his quest to become the
greatest golfer of all time. He could always find a place that would
allow him to play or practice; he could always enter junior
tournaments without fearing he’d be turned away; and, when it came
time to tee it up on golf’s biggest stage, the PGA Tour, he was
welcomed with open arms.
Black golfers who came before Woods did
not have such smooth sailing. Finding places to practice and play
were always a challenge. Playing in tournaments operated by the PGA
of America? Forget it. There was a “Caucasians-only” clause in the
PGA’s constitution that barred black golfers from competing.
The history of African-American golfers
attempting to compete at the highest level is perhaps the saddest
chapter in our great game. Men like Teddy Rhodes, Bill Spiller, and
Charlie Sifford were denied the opportunity to play while at the
height of their games. Only as late as 1961 did the PGA rescind its
Caucasians-only clause, which finally allowed black golfers to play
regularly on the tour.
Prior to 1961, some tournaments that
were not affiliated with the PGA of America did allow black players
to compete. John Shippen, Jr. became the fi rst African-American to
play in the US Open, in 1896. Players such as Rhodes and Spiller
competed in the Los Angeles Open in the 1940’s and a few other
events, because those tournaments would not sign the standard PGA
contract in effect at the time. Ann Gregory was the first black
woman to compete in a USGA event when she teed it up in the 1956 US
Women’s Amateur at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis.
The United Golf Association was formed
in 1926 by golf enthusiast Robert Hawkins as a way to give
African-American golfers a chance to compete. All of the great black
golfers of the time competed on this loosely-organized tour, which
ironically did not discriminate. Whites were welcome to play if they
so chose. The purses were meager and the course conditions were not
always the best. Still, it gave black players a place to play and to
hone their skills.
The highlight of the UGA’s season was
the National Negro Open. Normal first-place money in a UGA event
might be $500, but it could hit $1,000 for the National Negro Open.
Sifford won the event six times, including five straight from
The undoing of the PGA of America’s
Caucasian-only clause began in 1960 when Spiller caddied at
Hillcrest Country Club in California for Harry Braverman. However,
it’s important to note Spiller’s role prior to this.
In 1948, Spiller and Rhodes finished in
the top 60 of the Los Angeles Open, and by tour regulations should
have been allowed to play in the upcoming Richmond Open in Richmond,
California. Once they arrived, however, they were informed they
wouldn’t be allowed to play because they were not PGA of America
members. The catch, of course, is that they weren’t allowed to be
PGA of America members in the first place.
Rhodes was not the type to make waves,
but Spiller was. He found an attorney, Jonathan Rowell, who filed
suit on Spiller’s and Rhodes’ behalf against the PGA, mainly
alleging they were denied making a living due to the PGA of America
being a closed shop. The PGA’s attorney convinced Rowell to drop the
suit, saying that the PGA would no longer discriminate against black
players. However, the PGA had an ace up its sleeve. For legal
reasons, the PGA of America encouraged sponsors to begin calling
their tournaments “Open Invitationals,” which effectively kept these
tournaments white-only, as black players were not invited.
In 1952, Joe Louis, the former great
heavyweight boxing champion, was invited to play in the inaugural
San Diego Open. Louis had become a somewhat accomplished amateur
golfer by then. The organizers were hoping to attract attention to
their new tournament, and were likely unaware of the Caucasians-only
clause. They also invited Spiller and Eural Clark, a black southern
California amateur, to try to qualify. Spiller was successful, but
the PGA of America promptly barred both Louis and Spiller from
Spiller notified Walter Winchell, one of
the country’s leading radio personalities, who reported on the
goings-on to his audience. After a nationwide uproar, Louis was
allowed to compete because he was an amateur. Realizing that they
had a problem on their hands, the PGA that week announced that black
golfers could compete as “approved entries” if they were invited.
During that round in 1960 when Spiller
caddied for Braverman, the latter asked Spiller why he wasn’t
competing or teaching golf. Spiller explained the PGA’s
Caucasiansonly clause to Braverman, who urged Spiller to tell his
story to California’s attorney general, Stanley Mosk. Mosk promptly
told the PGA of America that if it did not remove the
Caucasians-only clause from its constitution, it would not be
allowed to stage tournaments on California’s public courses. When
the PGA responded that it would hold its tournaments on private
courses, Mosk said he would put a stop to that, too.
Mosk began informing other states’
attorneys general about the situation, and they began to pressure
the PGA, too. In 1961 the Caucasians-only clause was reluctantly
dropped from the PGA of America’s constitution.
Black players could now compete on the
tournament circuit without restrictions, but many of the best
players were past their primes. Sifford became the first to earn
playing privileges and can be considered the first official black
PGA Tour player. Pete Brown was the first African-American to win a
PGA-sanctioned event when he captured the Waco Turner Open in 1964.
Spiller? He competed, but at age 48 was
no longer at the top of his game. He fi nished 14th in the Labatt
Open in Canada for his best showing.
By 1968, television revenues had
increased tremendously from previous years, and the pros who
competed wanted these revenues added to the purses. The PGA of
America, though, continued to put these additional revenues into its
general fund. With prominent golfers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer
as part of a group of touring players unhappy with the PGA’s stance,
a breakaway group called the Association of Professional Golfers was
formed. The rift between the APG and the PGA of America was
eventually healed, and the Tournament Players Division of the PGA
was formed, soon to be known as the PGA Tour, a completely separate
entity from the PGA of America.
Around this time, a new generation of
black golfers arrived on the scene, perhaps most notably Lee Elder.
Elder won the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida, and
that qualified him to play in the Masters the following year.
Although black players such as Sifford and Brown had won
PGA-sponsored events previously, Augusta National did not
automatically invite tournament winners back then. Elder was very
nervous teeing it up at Augusta National, but he fired a respectable
74 in the first round before missing the cut by four shots after a
second round 78.
Jim Dent, Jim Thorpe, and Calvin Peete
found some success on the PGA Tour, with Peete having the best
record. He was arguably one of the five best players in the world in
the early 1980’s, winning 12 times from 1980-86.
As the 1980’s gave way to a new decade,
discrimination against black golfers reared its ugly head again in
1990, during the PGA Championship held at Shoal Creek Golf Club in
Birmingham, Alabama. Asked why Shoal Creek didn’t have any black
members, owner Hall Thompson replied, “That just isn’t done in
Birmingham,” along with several other controversial remarks. After a
firestorm of negative publicity, including some television sponsors
pulling their advertising, Thompson relented and admitted a black
member that very week.
The year 1990 saw another discriminatory
incident, this time involving a Jewish person, Henry Block of H & R
Block fame. The Kansas City Country Club refused his application for
admission because he was Jewish. This prompted Tom Watson, married
to a Jewish woman at the time, to resign his lifelong membership in
the club. Watson’s stance was noble, because it caused deep friction
between him and his father and friends. The country club eventually
relented and Watson rejoined.
Today, as hard to believe as it may
seem, Woods is the only player of African-American descent on the
PGA Tour, and Tim O’Neal the only one on the Nationwide Tour. With
the popularity of Woods, it would seem as if there would be more
minorities playing professionally.
The problem, of course, is a different
type of discrimination – that being one of money – as access is no
longer a problem. The First Tee, started in 1997, introduces the
game to kids of all colors, which is fine, but it doesn’t address
the problem of financing a professional career. As blacks still lag
behind whites in the United States in terms of overall financial
well-being, a career in professional golf is simply not possible for
most accomplished black amateurs.
The PGA Tour doesn’t help matters by
charging $5,000 to go through its qualifying process (Q-school).
Since there’s no direct effect between a person’s bank account and
their skill level, to have this fee set so high seems unnecessary,
at best. There’s no reason the PGA Tour cannot set the entry fee at
a reasonable level so anyone of adequate skill level can give it a
The Tour says it sets the fee high to
discourage “unqualified” applicants from trying. So what? They’ll
just be weeded out, anyway. And, the Tour already has in place a
requirement for entrants to have a letter from a professional that
attests to the entrant’s ability. Why isn’t that good enough?
When it comes to teaching golf,
historically African-Americans have been under-represented in that
arena, too. When the PGA of America finally dropped its
Caucasians-only clause, it opened the door for qualified black
professionals to take club jobs. Still, there weren’t that many who
were able to break through that barrier.
With the Caucasian-only clause initially
set in place by the PGA of America in 1943, the business of
professional golf has operated since then on a certain set of
principles, and therefore certain elements of these principles that
were set in place can clearly be seen even today.
When the USGTF started in 1989, we
noticed a fair share of African-American participants who sought
certification, and continue to do so. We like to think that our
welcoming attitude and atmosphere of inclusion have had something to
do with that.
And, we have clearly benefited from the
hundreds of African-Americans who have welcomed the opportunity to
finally become Certified Golf Teaching Professionals®. Our most
notable African-American members are Jimmy Garvin and the late
Julius Richardson, both members of the African-American Golfers Hall
of Fame. Richardson became the first, and so far only, black
professional on Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers List. Garvin runs
his Jimmy Garvin Legacy Foundation, which has as its mission
“educating juniors using golf as the threshold to the future.”
The main challenge today in getting more
black players competing and teaching, as noted earlier, is
financial. It takes a decent amount of money to buy a membership,
pay for range balls, and compete in tournaments. Even if someone has
no desire to become a playing professional but would like to teach,
a certain skill level in playing is required, and that takes time
and money. As black Americans slowly but surely close the income gap
with white Americans, we are likely to see a gradual increase of
minorities come into the professional ranks as players and teachers.
However, the PGA of America’s program
makes it difficult for many qualified people to become members. It
can cost well over $7,000 for the cost of materials, class time,
travel, and lodging. In addition, the program requires most people
to take a low-paying job, often working over 70 hours per week. This
is simply not feasible in today’s economy for many to take this
route. As a result, fine people with a myriad of business experience
are being shut out of PGA of America membership by these financial
and practical roadblocks.
Tiger Woods won’t be the last player of
African-American descent to have great success, but unless change
takes place, it will be a few years before we see that next player
emerge on the scene. Fortunately, the teaching arena continues to
brighten somewhat more quickly. The USGTF will continue to do its
part in providing a top-flight education for the next generation of
golf teachers of all colors.
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