History of black golfers

1952 newspaper PGA (Professional Golf Association) BANS NEGRO boxer JOE LOUIS from playing in a PGA sanctioned GOLF TOURNAMENT due to his RACE.


(September 11, 2018)

On this day, September 11, in 1961, the PGA of America, the world’s biggest sports organization, ended its ban on non-white players competing in professional competitions.  The impact would resound across America as this rule, which followed years of protests by black athletes and celebrities such as Bill Spiller, Ted Rhodes, Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Maggie Hathaway,  and so many others, seeking to bring about equality in competitive golf.  Legendary US heavyweight boxer Joe Louis was also instrumental in bringing about the change following a public outcry after he was barred from a tournament.
The ruling would enable skilled Black golfers to participate in official PGA tournaments, and, it paved the way for Tiger Woods, a young black golfer who would eventually dominate one of the world’s most elitist sports.

As the Caucasian-only ban was lifted, Black golfers would begin to become a fixture at PGA tournaments and prominent golfer Charlie Sifford would become the first Black golfer to play on the PGA Tour.  Although today, the majority of players remain white, the modern game now contrasts markedly with Caucasian-only era.

The first step to ending racism at the Professional Golfers’ Association of America – one of many national PGAs – came in 1948. In that year Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes were barred from playing in the PGA-organized Richmond Open in California despite qualifying in a non-affiliated tournament.

The golfers were very angry after being told that they needed to be “members” – but, as Black individuals, they were unable to join due to the prohibitive constitutional clause.  So they hired lawyer Jonathan Rowell to file a lawsuit which alleged the PGA was an illegal organization that barred Black players from earning a living.

Its president Horton Smith, the winner of the U.S. Masters tournament, convinced Spiller and Rhodes to drop the lawsuit after promising to end discrimination. But he then reneged on the agreement and instead encouraged tournament sponsors to rename their contests ‘Open Invitationals’ – and then not invite any Black golfers to play.

However, the organizers of the inaugural San Diego Open in 1952 were not aware of this informal agreement and invited both golf BillSpiller and former heavyweight boxer Joe Louis, who had become a talented golfer after retiring. When the PGA discovered the invitations, it promptly barred both gentlemen from participating in the tournament.

This is the move which ignited outrage across the US.  Louis had become a high profile national hero after successfully defending the heavyweight title between 1937 and 1939. In an effort to satisfy the public, the PGA partly relented and announced that Black golfers could compete as “approved entries” if invited – but the never were.

Spiller eventually gave up on playing in ‘negro opens’ and later served as a caddy at the Hillcrest Country Club in California. His skill – and the injustice he had endured – was noted by political writer Harry Braverman after being helped during a game in 1960.  In this matter, Braverman encouraged Spiller to contact the state’s attorney general Stanley Mosk, who told the PGA it could not host tournaments on California’s public courses unless it removed its Caucasians-only clause from its constitution.

Mosk encouraged other states to follow and began trying to evict the PGA from private links as well. A year later, the organization eventually bowed to pressure and reluctantly dropped its color bar.

By 1961, however, Spiller was 48-years-old and far from his best and could manage only 14th place in the Labatt Open in Canada in his only fully professional season. It took until 1964 for a Black player to win a PGA-sanctioned event after Pete Brown captured the Waco Turner Open.

Tiger Woods became the first non-white player to win a major after scooping the Masters in 1997.

How far have we come?

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