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Teeing off: history of blacks in golf.

On a break from the PGA Senior Tour to rest an ailing back, one of golf's greatest all-time talents shared some thoughts about the game and life.

"I look at it as a blessing," said Calvin Peete, on his God-given abilities to hit a little white ball for a living." But it just goes to show what a person can do if he asserts himself. No matter how big the foe may be, the foe will fall if you have determination."

Peete's inspirational words can easily take on double meaning. Golf is a metaphor for life, where good and bad lies don't always even out. For all his amazing success (he never picked up a golf club until the age of 23!), Peete's message could well mirror the story of African-Americans and golf--a rich and remarkable tradition in which he plays a major role.

Ever since it arrived from Scotland in the late 19th century, golf has existed in large part as the exclusive province of white America. Yet over that same period of time, a great number of black golfers have overcome racial prejudice to assimilate the game for themselves. From their ranks, a unique legacy of African-American sport would emerge.

Charlie Sifford, who spent the better part of a distinguished career battling the game's elitist conventions; Lee Elder, who's pocketed over $2,000,000 in purses and who broke the color barrier at The Masters at Augusta, Ga. along the way; Cal Peete, who, despite the late start, dominated the professional ranks in the early 1980s--these are the big names.

But there are scores of others. Teddy Rhodes, died in relative obscurity at age 53 after winning over 150 tournaments on the unofficial black tours, under the aegis of the United Golfers Association, a loosely formed federation of black golfers, and golf clubs, formed by black doctors in the 1920s in Stowe, Mass. (golf's equivalent to baseball's Negro Leagues). Bill Spiller, with Rhodes, sued the PGA for the right to play. Jim Dent has spent the last few decades out-driving Jack Nicklaus (and everybody else). There was tennis great Althea Gibson, and Renee Powell--the only black woman ever to play on the LPGA Tour. Jim Thorpe is currently the only African-American on the PGA Tour. In no other sport does the title of Arthur Ashe's celebrated history of black athletes, A Hard Road to Glory, take on such poignancy.

"You could back a million people up against the wall, white or black," said Sifford recently. "Nobody would have gone through what I did--just to be a golfer."

Now 71, super-fit, and still competing on the Senior Tour, the cigar-chomping Sifford endured random abuse to play the game he loves. In the face of harassment, discrimination, and physical threats, he defiantly strode restricted fairways for others to follow. After winning five consecutive National Negro Championships (1952-1956), he bridged two eras by becoming the first black to win a predominately white event, the Long Beach Open in 1957. He was also the first to win a major PGA event--the Hartford Open in 1967. Sifford's efforts are often credited with ushering in "open golf" and as such are frequently paralleled with those of Jackie Robinson, but he rejects the comparison, due to the recent scarcity of black golfers on the PGA Tour. "I was just strong enough to fight 'em and stay out here with 'em," he said. "My attitude was, give me a rock and a nail, and I'll beat you at your own game."

That attitude was born of an era when black golfers blossomed in the caddie yards of all-white country clubs. When they weren't sneaking on to poach a few holes in near-darkness, they swung makeshift irons towards branches stuck in the ground, dedicating themselves to mastering the game. (Winston Churchill, who complained of "clubs ill-designed to suit the purpose" obviously never compared notes with Walter Stewart, a black Baltimore professional who once fondly reminisced of a childhood spent hitting walnuts with coat-hangers strung together.)

"I found out I could smack a golf ball and make it go straight and far," wrote Sifford in his autobiography, Just Let Me Play. "And once I learned that, nothing was going to stop me from playing the game and getting better."

The earliest days of black golf actually stretch back several decades before Sifford and Rhodes barnstormed golf's hard-scrabble "neckbone circuit" in the '40s and '50s. In 1899, Dr. George F. Grant, a black Boston dentist and Harvard graduate, patented the first tee. (Prior to that, balls were driven off little mounds of sand.) Grant's ingenuity was preceded by the unsung heroics of John Shippen, a black man who taught golf at Shinnecock golf course in Long Island, NY, in the 1890s and who is acknowledged by golf historians to be the country's first professional.

In 1896, Shippen competed in the first of his five U.S. Opens, an event that was marred by racism. At the last minute, the mostly-foreign white entrants threatened to boycott the tournament if Shippen and Oscar Bunn (a Shinnecock Native American) were allowed to enter. But when United States Golf Association president Theodore Havermyer informed them that "we are going to play this thing today even if Shippen and Bunn are the only people in it," the group grudgingly played on.

Unfazed by the controversy, Shippen, who wound up tied for fifth, actually led the tour-nament after the first round--the first African-American player ever to do so.

His career eventually took him to Shady Rest in New Jersey, the nation's first black country club, where he served as head pro and greenskeeper for over 30 years.

Following World War I, increased numbers of African-Americans were taking to public courses, albeit with restrictions as to when or where they could play. Out of this atmosphere, the United Golfers Association was formed in 1926 by a group of black Washington D.C. doctors. Their first tournament was held that year at another all-black country club, Mapledale in Boston. For over half a century, the organization served as the umbrella under which black pros competed and toured the country.

Over the following decades, member clubs of the UGA would sponsor thousands of events, attracting such legendary avid golfers as singer Billy Eckstine, Jackie Robinson, football star Jim Brown and of course, Joe Louis. "My father did as much as any non-golfer to open up the sport," said Joe Louis Barrow, an executive in the golf industry (Izzo Systems, Inc.). "To have someone with his respect playing the game allowed people to think of blacks in a different context."

Both as participants and as financial supporters of tourneys and struggling professionals, Louis and the others helped popularize the circuit. Many of the venues have survived as culturally significant urban golfing oases--courses such as Rackham in Detroit, Jackson Park in Chicago, Langston in D.C., Douglas in Indianapolis and Swope Park in Kansas City, to name just a few. Thaddeus Gray, the head professional at Douglas said that his course, like many public links, functions as a "community meeting place," and that minority golfers "are beginning to identify more with their golfing roots."

One of the more special tracks from that era is Clearview, built from scratch by a black golfer in East Canton, Ohio. At age 77, Bill Powell (father of Renee Powell, the last African-American to play on the LPGA Tour) continues to run the course he created from a dairy farm in the late '40s. "Golf is like a disease," he told Golf World last year. "I just got hooked on it as a kid and I wouldn't let it go."

As an unofficial tour, the UGA gradually devolved from lack of sponsors. A few tournaments remain--notably, the Skyview Open, a professional/amateur event organized by Billy Gordenhight, which was recently held for the 35th year at the Buncombe Golf Course in Asheville, NC. "Until golf opened up into a real business, the UGA was it for many years," recalled Dennis Morgan, a former UGA tournament director. "Now it's just a fading memory of older players. But it served its purpose by bringing top players into the limelight."

More's the pity that many black pros were past their prime when the color barriers were dropped in 1962. Who knows how Teddy Rhodes --one of the smoothest ball-strikers who ever lived, a man called "the black Jack Nicklaus" by his protege Charlie Sifford --might have fared in his prime? Or the legendary "Crosshand" Wheeler, with his ungainly, yet resourceful, unorthodox swing? "The PGA tour players don't hit the ball any better than we do," Rhodes once said. "All we need is the chance to get in there and shoot with them."

As a UGA cross-over whose Senior record stands as the best among black golfers to date, Lee Elder made the most of that chance. But his most dramatic moment has to be his Jim Crow breakthrough at the 1975 Masters. In the face of a national clamor for equality in the early '70s, the Masters repeatedly snubbed Sifford and Elder, despite their qualifications. (Sifford and Pete Brown, winner of the Waco Open in 1964, would actually have qualified in previous years, had Augusta not altered its rules to exclude them.) Elder insisted at the time he'd never play if invited, but he relented when he qualified by winning the Pensacola Open in 1974.

Arguably one of the greatest black golfers ever, Calvin Peete points to Elder as a true inspiration: "I'd only been playing two years, when I saw him (Elder) on TV in a playoff with Nicklaus. I was very impressed not only with his game, but with his mannerisms and how he conducted himself. He was the first black man I had seen playing professional golf, and I thought if that brother can do it, I have a chance."

To most hackers, the idea of such a jump after such a brief introduction is tough to grasp. Unlike his predecessors, Calvin Peete never caddied, never struck a ball in his youth, and but for a few appearances never played the UGA. Moreover, he has a crooked left arm that physically can't align itself properly on his swing. Yet no golfer anywhere has ever hit the ball as consistently straight as he has, and his eleven wins in six years on the PGA Tour ('81-'86) place him near the very top of all golfing achievement.

While minorities contributed to the recreational golf boom of the '80s, black faces on tour gradually disappeared during Peete's career. One major setback was the golf cart's replacement of the caddie system--the place where all great African-American golfers (save Peete) had honed their skills. Another problem is the lack of minority junior golf outlets, when compared to those of white counterparts. "I knew there weren't a lot of black kids waiting in the wings," lamented Peete, who's worked extensively with young golfers. "After Lee (Elder) left for the Seniors, I felt a responsibility to influence others."

At 44, Jim Thorpe is right now the sole survivor, the last black man on the regular tour and the last link to the UGA's past. Well aware of his significant role, Thorpe, as Elder and Peete did before him, promotes the game via clinics for inner-city youths. "Unless we open our eyes up to do something for our kids," he said recently at the Doral-Ryder Open where he finished second, "I don't see anything changing."

But there are signs. With their recent eighth annual championship, the National Minority College Golf Association gained new support from Reebok, Xerox and Pepsi. Tour veteran Jim Dent attended and was impressed by "a lot of black boys and girls with awesome swings." Dent says that it's just a matter of time, that a lot of black parents are taking their kids to the golf course today. "Back in my day, just the parents used to go to the golf course."

Any change will likely have been prodded on by enents following the controversy at Shoal Creek Country Club, home of the 1991 PGA Championship. Club founder Hall Thompson's statement that "we don't discriminate in any area but the blacks," met such public outrage that the PGA quickly decreed that all venues, no matter how exclusively private, would have to include minority members.

In the ensuing wake, golf's ruling bodies have begun to attend to some of the problems confronting the future of minority golf. For the first time, the USGA appointed a black man, John Merchant, to its executive committee, while industry leaders have begun holding annual minority golf symposiums to address related issues. Last year's meeting focused primarily on four areas: junior golf, college golf, employment and economic development. "There's still a lot to be done," says Merchant, adding that professional golf is not a priority. (The truth of the matter is there are only 125 guys on the PGA tour at a time.)

Joe Louis Barrow, a member of the symposium, sees more minorities playing the game of late. As a black executive in the golf industry, he is particularly attuned to the game's economic benefits. "The people who are going to lead African-American involvement are the business people," said Barrow. "If you put the business quotient on top of it, as opposed to just recreation, then you have more incentives to do it. Then as they enjoy the game more and introduce their children to it, you'll see more growth."

Retired Chicago housing administrator Elmer Beard concurred, stressing that the game offers an opportunity "to interact with white counterparts for four and a half hours." Beard, who recently became the first black to serve on the directorship of the Western Golf Association often tells young golfers that "golf is walking shoulder-to-shoulder for 6,000 yards."

In an age of Michael Jordans and Ken Griffeys Jrs., how well golf takes off with minorities may bank on the future careers of two bright and promising talents: La Ree Sugg and Eldrick "Tiger" Woods.

Currently playing in Europe, the 24-year-old Ms. Sugg, who is sponsored by Titleist and played for UCLA, appears destined to become the first black woman on the LPGA tour in 15 years. "I try not to think about it," she said last year. "I was the only black golfer in the NCAA tournament too."

Tiger Woods could spell the future of all gold, black or white. Woods, now a freshman at Stanford, has stated that he wants to be the "best golfer ever," and "golf's Michael Jordan." These are heady musings, even for one of such precocious credentials: shooting 48 for 9 holes at age 3, breaking 80 at age 8, youngest ever to win the National Juniors, etc. etc.

Says his father Earl Woods: "If Tiger does develop and bloom, you'll find that kids will be sinking putts instead of shooting baskets."

Perhaps. Either way, golf fathers might take a tip from Earl Woods on golf parenting: "It's a microcosm of life--you want your kid out there on the course with you. They're learning about you and you about them. It develops a bond that wasn't there before. It's called golf."

For more information, call the United Golfers Association at 810 559-3880, or call Charles Dorton at the Black Golf Information Center, 510 223-7414.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Special Section: 1994 Black Enterprise/Pepsi-Cola Golf and Tennis Challenge
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Previous Article:Golf and Tennis Challenge: tournament in review.
Next Article:Grand Slam: history of blacks in tennis.

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