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Aug 31

African-American Golfers: Some History, Old Friends, New Faces

For those of us who were paying attention back in the 1950s, the African-American golfers who broke the color barrier on the professional tours are familiar, at least after Bill Spiller’s heroic attempts to legally force the PGA to open its doors. When the segregation clause was threatened, the tour switched to invitationals, then kept the invitee list Caucasian. But, after much hard work, integrated golf broke through.

The likeable Charlie Sifford, born in ’22, was the first African-American to join the tour, but not without a regimen of abuse and threats. Entering in ’61, he won the Long Beach, two PGA events and the Senior Championship in ’75. In ’04, he was the first African-American golfer inducted into the American Hall of Fame, and chose Gary Player as his presenter.

Lee Elder played in the Masters that same year, another first. Incidentally, that was also the year of Tiger Wood’s birth. Elder amassed twelve victories and broke the Ryder Cup barrier in ’79. He was joined by colleagues Rafe Bates, Pete Brown, Jim Dent, Calvin Peete, Curtis Sifford, Nathaniel Starks, Bobby Stroble and Jim Thorpe. Dent grew up as an Augusta caddy, with twelve senior victories, Brown became the first African-American golfer to win a PGA event, and Peete, born in ’43, was the most successful until Tiger Woods.

A few of these names may ring smaller bells than others, but recognition is even trickier on the women’s tour. Go searching the history of African-American women in golf, and prepare to be surprised. Renee Powell stands out from the start. A winner of thirty trophies by the age of fifteen, and the first African-American golfer to play in the USGA Girls Junior Championship, she played her first pro event in the U.S. Women’s Open of ’67, then played two hundred and thirty more tournaments in the following thirteen years. She became the pro at Silvermore in London, the first woman to assume that post. Somehow, she managed to make numerous clinic trips to Africa.

Not all of the stars are historical. In 2010, Shasta Averyhardt, a former Jackson State golfer, qualified for the LPGA, the first African-American to hold a card since LaRee Sugg in ’01. Darlene Stowers will undoubtedly emerge as a fellow presence as well.

Some of the new leaders are not on tour, although they could be. Maulana Dotch is the first African-American woman golfer to earn a Class A membership in the PGA, and serves as the Head Pro at Cedar Crest in Dallas. She is an enormous force in First Tee and other youth development organizations.

Even with all these contributors, the number of African-American golfers on tour has decreased dismally, and it’s not due to the tours, which are highly and happily integrated, a far cry from the old days. The apprentice system , however, offered by caddying continues to erode as playing costs rise, discouraging not only ethnic participation, but mid to low-income players as well. Sifford, Snead, Hogan, Nelson, Sarazen and others came through the caddy system, but now the country clubs pick up the slack.

The real find in my reading on this subject is a book written by an author previously unfamiliar to me. I’m going to buy it, and you might enjoy doing the same. M. Mikell Johnson’s The African American Woman Golfer looks intriguing, especially considering Johnson’s story. A research scientist at Sloan-Kettering, her goals include playing remaining segregated courses, getting Althea Gibson (Wimbledon winner, and a golfer) into the South Carolina Hall of Fame and getting African-American golfers to establish an ongoing presence on the tours.

From distant history to the 2012 season, it’s a fascinating and living subject, of which I admit to being woefully ignorant. It’s hard to win at this game, but for the top African-American golfers, it never should have been this hard to get on the course.

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About the author

G.F. Skipworth

has spent every available moment playing golf or studying the greats since the 60s, in between world tours as a classical musician, Harvard studies in Government or as the author of a dozen novels. Nicklaus and Snead may be the statistical greats, but Skipworth is a life-long devotee of Gary Player, and considers meeting the South African at the Jeld-Wen to be an unforgettable milestone. His driving passion in golf these days is to raise viewer interest in the LPGA.