Saturday, February 18, 2012

Uneven Fairways

I love golf...its history, integrity, and its challenge to play a difficult game well. There are things about golf that I don't love, namely that for too long it was an elitist, racist and exclusionary pastime open only to rich white men. There are vestiges of that mentality still around today, but nothing like what prevailed from the 30's well into the 70's. The Professional Golfer's Association (PGA) of America actually had a clause written into its charter stating that the ranks of professional golf were open only to Caucasian males. Like some other sports, especially baseball, this policy of segregation was harmful not only from a moral standpoint, but because on a practical level, it denied men of color the opportunity to compete at a game they loved.

The Golf Channel, (yes folks, there is a channel dedicated entirely to golf) aired a special a few years back titled "Uneven Fairways", a reference to how blacks were excluded from the game except as caddies. Fortunately, they found a way to play. As caddies they learned the game by watching the white men they caddied for. They picked up discarded clubs, or made their own, and played anywhere they could. Because their equipment was inferior and the courses they played less than pristine, they became skilled shotmakers who found a way to get the ball into the hole. Frustrated at being unwelcome to compete in PGA tour events, black golfers, (like black baseball players who founded the Negro Baseball Leagues), formed the United Golfers Association (UGA) in 1926.

It was heartening and sad to hear the old timers who played in that Association back then tell stories of how they struggled. Sponsors were hard to come by, winner's purses were a tenth of what they were on the PGA tour, and often, the winners' check would bounce at the bank due to unscrupulous promoters who stole the money and fled. One golfer spoke of sometimes having just one golf ball to play in a tournament, and if it was lost, he had to quit. They talked of sharing hotel rooms, riding public buses to the tournaments, and eating only if the tournament promoters provided food. What was so uplifting about these sad stories is that, almost to a man, these old timers recounted their stories with a smile. More than one said it was the best time of his life in that everyone helped one another and lasting friendships were formed.

A major turning point for black golfers came in the 1930's when Joe Louis defeated the hated German Max Schmelling for the world heavyweight boxing title. He became a hero, not only to black Americans, but to all Americans. An avid and able golfer, Louis was the first African-American to be admitted to an all-white country club. While a step forward, this hardly changed life for the black professional golfer. They were still excluded from PGA tournaments due to the "Caucasians only" clause. Ironically, unlike baseball where white players were openly hostile to integration, most white golf professionals had no objection to allowing blacks to compete. Some, like Arnold Palmer, openly advocated for the change.

In the late 40's and early 50's, talented golfers, inspired by Jackie Robinson's breakthrough in baseball, began mounting legal challenges to the PGA's 'whites only' rule. Men like Charlie Sifford, Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller won local events which would have qualified them for PGA tournaments, but were still denied. Rhodes, who was widely regarded as the best black player on the UGA tour, was also considered to be a passive man and a reluctant hero. “He was just too nice of a guy and too much of a gentleman to fight and scratch for his constitutional right to play." Sifford, who was more combative, was chosen to do for golf what Jackie had done for baseball. With the help of a local white San Francisco attorney to sue the PGA for denying them their constitutional right to work, they pressed hard for change.

Not wanting to incur the embarrassment a lawsuit, the PGA relented and allowed the men to play. That technically ended segregation in golf, but loopholes were found to keep black golfers out of tournaments. Finally, in 1952, sponsors of the San Diego Open invited Joe Louis to participate in their tournament through a sponsor’s exemption. As it is today, inviting celebrities to play was a common practice and often done to draw attention to the event and increase attendance. A spokesman for the tournament said at the time, “We are most anxious that Joe, one of America’s true sports heroes, will play in our event.” The barriers were finally down, but blacks in golf still had to endure what Jackie Robinson endured trying to integrate baseball.

One of those interviewed for the "Uneven Fairways" show was Tiger Woods. This was before Tiger imploded and ruined his career and his life. He was asked if he understood what other African-Americans had to undergo so that he as a man of color could compete and excel at the highest levels in golf. To Tiger's credit, he had sought out and learned from many of the men who paved the way for him. He graciously acknowledged their contributions and sacrifices as the only reason he was where he was today. Conversely, the interviewer spoke to many older golfers who had competed in the United Golfers Association and asked them what they thought of Tiger Woods. Clearly they were fiercely proud of him, but the wistful look that came into their eyes said: maybe if I had the chance, I could have been the Tiger Woods of my day.

What was done to these men is terrible, but they never gave up on their dream. They found a way to play golf and fought long and hard to show they were as good or better than their white counterparts. I wonder if young African-American men today fully understand the courage and resilience shown by Jackie Robinson and Charlie Sifford in fighting for what they knew was right.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association


The Whiner said...

I always knew golf had a history or racism and sexism but I had no idea it was written into the golf rules. That's horrible. I liked this blog, as well as the other historical ones. Gives me a little history lesson as well as teaches me about things others have endured just to have basic rights.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Sometimes shows like this and books like The Help make me reexamine my own prejudices, and I'm not always pleased at what I find. Glad you enjoyed it.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Another great blog! Par for the course.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks Joe, the show was very moving and, for me, a much-needed reminder of how unfair life can be if your skin is the wrong color.

Irene Morgan said...

Don’t forget, the Mayakoba Golf Classic on the beautiful Riviera Maya in Mexico will be airing Feb 22-26. See Greg Norman, Johnson Wagner and Nick Price among others. Check out the website for more information, details and news.