Nov. 28 - Not long after Tiger Woods finished off his record-breaking victory in the Masters, he stood on the practice green at Augusta National wearing his green jacket and paid tribute to black pioneers such as Lee Elder, Charlie Sifford and Teddy Rhodes.
InsertArt(809404)“THOSE GUYS PAVED the way for me to be here,” Woods said that day in 1997. “I thank them. If it wasn’t for them, I might not have had the chance to play here.”
Three years later, after Woods had completed the Grand Slam and then joined Ben Hogan as the only players to win three straight majors, Sifford watched quietly from behind the eighth green at Firestone Country Club as Woods came through.
His eyes were full of pride at the role he played and the road he helped paved.
“I think I played a major part in Afro-Americans in golf,” Sifford said. “If I didn’t act like a professional, if I did something crazy, there might never be any blacks playing. I toughed it out, and I’m proud of it.”
Then he watched Woods head down the next fairway, on his way to another record score and an 11-stroke victory in the NEC Invitational. Sifford smiled when asked what Woods has meant to golf.
“Look at these people,” he said, motioning to the enormous gallery. “He’s the greatest thing to ever come along for golf.”
Woods understood the price that was paid when he won the Masters. Others can get an idea of the struggles and victories of black golfers through the years in a book by Pete McDaniel, senior writer for Golf Digest.
“Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf” traces the history of black golfers from John Shippen, who in 1896 became the first black to play in the U.S. Open, to Woods winning the Masters.
Along the way there are stories of the battles that everyday black golfers fought to play courses supported by their tax dollars but off limits to them, contributions from women players such as Ann Gregory and Althea Gibson, and self-taught players on the all-black United Golfers Association, kept off the PGA Tour by its “Caucasian clause.”
“There are as many African-Americans as not who don’t know the history,” McDaniel said. “I would like for the book to educate people about the contributions and the rich history we have in the game. And if it could inspire others to pick up this game and enjoy the benefits from it, that would be a bonus.”
While McDaniel said the history of black golfers needs to be told, McDaniel had no intention of writing it.
He said the idea came from Titleist chief executive Wally Uihlein, who began working on a documentary and assigned one of his tour reps, Craig Bowen, to do the research. That’s when Uihlein pitched the idea of a book, and McDaniel went to work three months after Woods won the Masters.
McDaniel relied on his own experiences for insight. He was a caddie at Biltmore Forest Country Club in North Carolina, where stories were passed down about great players who mostly stayed on the black circuit or struggled to get in a few PGA-sanctioned events — John Dendy, Bill Spiller, Rafe Botts and Zeke Hartsfield.
Then there was James Black, for whom McDaniel once caddied and said could shape the ball any way he pleased. Black finally made it to the PGA Tour briefly in 1965, but played only 14 tournaments before he lost the financial backing he needed.
“That was the impetus for including a lot of the guys that no one ever knew,” McDaniel said. “I caddied and I played the game, and I think I understood some of the trials and tribulations.”
Rhodes, Sifford, Spiller and former boxing champion Joe Louis were among the first group of blacks to play a tournament sanctioned by the PGA of America — the 1952 Phoenix Open. They were sent out first, and found excrement in the bottom of the first hole.
They held up play for nearly an hour waiting for it to be removed.
Rhodes went on to play 69 PGA events, but his prime was past when the PGA finally got rid of its “Caucasian clause” in 1961.
Sifford became the first PGA tour member in 1960, a year before the clause was removed from the PGA constitution, but claimed his card gave him only limited access.
“It didn’t mean anything,” he says in the book. “It didn’t get me past those big ol’ guards with those big ol’ 45s.”
He went on to win the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open in 1969, but he never did make it to the Masters. He still has not set foot on Augusta National Golf Club, and watched Woods’ historic victory on TV.
Elder was at Augusta in 1997, 22 years after he became the first black to qualify for the Masters by winning in Pensacola, Fla. Elder missed the cut in his first Masters. He played in five more, making the cut in three of them.
While the past and the present are well-documented, the troubling aspect of black golfers is the future. As many as 26 blacks have played the PGA Tour since 1960, but Woods is the only one now.
McDaniel attributes much of that to lack of caddie programs. But he also believes Woods’ impact on golf, especially the youth clinics he conducts four times a year, will again change the face of golf without the same resistance the Rhodes, Sifford and others faced.
“These kids are coming,” McDaniel said.
© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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