Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 5, 2021

Time To Acknowledge American Golf’s Original Sin

When Tiger Woods is inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame next March, in a ceremony scheduled to take place at the PGA Tour’s newly built corporate headquarters the night before the 2022 Players Championship tees off at nearby TPC Sawgrass, he will join Charlie Sifford as one of just two African Americans among 164 Hall honorees.  That is in part because, at least for more recent players, admission to golf’s Hall of Fame is based on specific criteria for number of wins in either regular tournaments or majors.  But relying on that as the reason for the lack of black faces on the plaques that hang on the wall in St. Augustine, Florida, both ignores the fact that the Hall has always had more broadly based “lifetime achievement” and “veterans” membership categories and skips right past a fundamental reality of the sport.

Even casual sports fans know Jackie Robinson’s name and the significance of his achievement, but golf in general and the professional tours in particular have a far more exclusionary history than baseball or any of our other major games.  As much as any sport and more so than most, golf requires very specific equipment, starting with an expanse of land far greater than a sandlot or driveway basketball court.  By definition, the sport isn’t learned in neighborhood pickup games.  Even today vast numbers of courses are private clubs, and throughout golf’s history far too many of those clubs have barred not just prospective members who lacked a particular social standing or income level, but also those whose race, or in some cases gender or religion, was not acceptable to the membership committee.  As recently as 1990, Shoal Creek County Club in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, nearly lost hosting rights to that year’s PGA Championship when the club’s founder publicly resisted admitting black members. 

The racist membership policy was hardly unique to Shoal Creek.  The most famous golf course in the country, Augusta National, also raced to admit its first African American member that year, and even with the torrent of negative publicity directed at both clubs at the time likely did so only because co-founder Clifford Roberts had died thirteen years earlier.  It was Roberts, after all, who once said “As long as I’m alive all the golfers will be white, and all the caddies will be black.”

In the years of Jim Crow, such restrictions weren’t limited to private courses.  In 1955 five black golfers were charged with trespassing for trying to play on a public course in Greensboro, North Carolina.  When a court ruled the public facility had to admit them, the city quickly leased the golf course to a private company that in turn imposed a “whites-only” rule, a trick that was copied by several other southern municipalities.  The story was the same at the pinnacle of the sport, where the PGA of America’s by-laws included a “Caucasian-only” clause from the organization’s founding in 1934 until 1961, fourteen years after Robinson first set foot on a major league diamond. 

Sifford is honored at the Hall of Fame because he was the first black member of the PGA Tour, but there are plenty of other candidates worthy of enshrinement.  Like ballplayers who spent much of their careers in the old Negro Leagues, these golfers spent time playing on separate but decidedly not equal courses and tours, most notably the United Golf Association (UGA), which organized tournaments for black professionals, both men and women, beginning in 1925. 

There is Althea Gibson, best known as a tennis player but also the first black woman to play on the LPGA Tour, and Renee Powell, who followed Gibson after playing UGA events from the age of 12 and integrating women’s tournaments sponsored by the USGA.  Powell was the first African American winner of a LGPA tournament, the 1973 Kelly Springfield Open. 

There is Powell’s father Bill, who fell in love with golf while stationed in Scotland during World War II and came home to build Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio, after he was barred from membership in other area clubs solely because of his race.  The course is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

There is Jim Dent, who caddied at Augusta National as a young man, and won twelve times decades later, on the Champions Tour.

And there is Lee Elder, who died a week ago at the age of 87.  Elder began his professional career on the UGA in 1961 after being discharged from the Army.  He dominated that tour, at one point winning 18 times in a stretch of 22 tournaments.  In 1967 he raised enough money to attend the PGA Tour’s qualifying school, where he earned his card for the following season.  As a rookie, he proved his mettle by taking Jack Nicklaus to five holes of sudden death at the 1968 American Golf Classic.  Three years later he accepted Gary Player’s invitation to play in the South African PGA Championship after receiving assurances tournament spectators would not be subject to that country’s apartheid policies. 

Elder won four PGA Tour events, and after turning 50 added eight more Champions Tour titles to his resume.  He was the first African American to play on a U.S. Ryder Cup team.  But he also received plenty of hate mail, and once had a spectator pick up his ball and throw it out of bounds.  Fortunately, the act was seen by his playing partner, and Elder was given a free drop.  At the 1968 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida, Elder was forced to change clothes in the parking lot, as blacks were barred from the clubhouse.  Six years later, he won the tournament for his first PGA Tour title.  The victory earned him a spot in the following year’s Masters, where in April 1975, a few months before Tiger Woods was born, Elder put the lie to the overt racism of Clifford Roberts.

Lee Elder missed the cut at that Masters, though he may have understandably been distracted since he was advised to rent two houses and shuttle between them because of the number of death threats he received leading up to the tournament.  But he returned to Augusta National six more times, five as a player, and, finally, last April, when he joined Player and Nicklaus as an honorary starter.  Just as enshrinement in the World Golf Hall of Fame would be, it was an overdue recognition of an athlete who was a trailblazer in his sport, not because he wanted to be, but because that is what it took for a golfer who happened to look like Lee Elder to succeed.

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