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Tuesday, February 9, 2021



I was recently sent a story about Kamaiu Johnson, a young black golfer who had been invited to play in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, but, because of a positive Covid-19 test the week before, he had to withdraw. According to him, it had been a “dream come true”, but was obviously disappointed. However, he won’t have to wait long for his “dream” of playing a tour event to come true, as organizers of the Honda Classic in March, have extended him an invitation as well.

That said, surely “his dream” is not to only play in a tour event as a sponsor’s exemption, but to get good enough to actually qualify for a tour, where his efforts and skill will earn him a place in the field, and not through a sponsor’s exemption. I wish him well, but the story that is worth telling and teaching our youth, is the story that actually made this invitation to Kamaiu possible, or even a thought of it.

This story, not taught by anyone, involves many great golfers of the past who were denied the opportunity to play with the big boys of their time because of the color of their skin.

You can call them the Unheralded Titans of the Game, who, against all odds, never gave up trying to play this great game for a living. I am sure many other black golfers -or minorities-, with less internal fortitude, gave up the chase to swim upstream the river of discrimination.

Not these men who never teed it up against those names familiar to most golfers who have read a little golf history, like Jones, Sarazem Hagen, Nelson, Hogan, Snead and later, against Palmer, Casper or the early days of Nicklaus, but never quit trying.

I don’t know about you, but I do like stories with a good ending. This one is in the 18th fairway, and even though it started with a few bad holes, has scored many birdies and eagles afterwards and when it is all finished, the score will be under par. If the last 70 years are a measuring stick, you can see a very happy ending.

There are a lot of names who young golfers, black or white, should learn about. Names at the end of this post who paved the way for the likes of Lee Elder, Jim Dent and Jim Thorpe, then to Calvin Peete, and later Tiger Woods, Harold Varner III, and Cheyene Woods among others, all of whom can now enjoy the success that these titans forged with their determination to just play this wonderful game against the best. They didn't want any “special” treatment, "just" equal treatment. I am sure they even helped people like Rod Curl and Lee Trevino among others.

The PGA of America was founded in 1916 and an organized tour started soon after. In its starting years, the players were club professionals. It was a time in history where golf was not popular and was mainly for the rich, so there weren’t any public golf courses. Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead were four years old when the PGA of American was founded, and one William Powell, was born the same year as the PGA of America.

It was also a time when you could not make a living on tour with the small purses. You played for the trophy so you could get a better club job and give many lessons, and perhaps give some exhibitions where you could make some extra money as well. It was also a time when golf professionals were not treated as well. In the eyes of club members, they were not much better than the caddies. They were only given access to the course, but not the clubhouse or locker room: “change your shoes in the parking lot, eat meals at the caddy house, collect if you win, and go home. Thanks for the show”.

When the PGA of America was founded, they had a “Caucasian Only” rule for tournament play. Probably no one knew of the rule at the time because there weren’t many good black golfers then that we know of, until one black golfer, Dewey Brown, became the first black member of the PGA of America in 1928. But, the tournament rule was not changed.

As the interest in golf grew in America, a good percentage of black golfers began playing and enjoying the game, they began knocking on the doors of the PGA of America to be allowed to play with the “big boys”.

It was not until the mid-50’s, when Horton Smith (winner of the first Masters and third Masters and many other tournaments), then president of the PGA of America helped change the rule to allow black golfers in any tour event “if the club where it would be played at, allowed black players”.

It doesn’t seem like much of a “positive change”, especially nowadays where if you don’t like something you demonstrate in front of the offending club or try to boycott sponsors of a particular tournament. But the truth is that the PGA of America did not have the influence it now has, and there was no way they could dream of boycotting a club, especially when it was the members who put up most purses.

Finally, on September 11 (yes, 9/11) of 1961, the PGA of America eliminated the “Caucasian Only” rule. Too late for some, but the change was historically significant and a great move to equal opportunity to ALL golfers with any skin color, started to take shape.

In some places, like the deep south, it took longer. For instance, Augusta National did not change its rule of “no black golfers” in The Masters Invitational tournament until 1970, though no black golfer qualified until Lee Elder did for the 1975 Masters, becoming the first black golfer to ever play in the famous event. As it turned out, it was also the first time a professional Mexican golfer qualified for the Masters, as Victor Regalado qualified as well.

You must realize that the tour with equal opportunity for all, where skill is the primary qualification, as you now know it, would not have been possible without the courageous fight of men who wanted nothing special, just share the same fairways as the greats you have read about.

If you want to enlighten your knowledge and perhaps encourage younger people to know more about the game’s history, as uncomfortable as it may be, please look them up: Charlie Sifford, Ted Rhodes, Pete Brown, Bill Spiller, Dewey Brown, and William Powell, a pioneer, the first black golfer to design, build and own a professional golf course in the United States (Clearview Golf Club in Ohio).

No story is ever finished, and no matter what, I rather study the men who made the story and how they faced and overcame their obstacles, and not think who put obstacles for them, or for what reason. I had the opportunity, pleasure and privilege to meet two of these golfers, one of the pioneers, and one who began taking advantage of the fruits: Charlie Sifford and Jim Dent, and I can attest that both were true, true gentlemen. Plus, both were great golfers. In Sifford’s case, even though Charlie was past his prime in 1973 when I met him, he still won the Raleigh Cup series against much younger golfers.

Golf, the tour and all minority golfers are better off because of these titans and those who believed in them, and yes, it’s okay to remember them!

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