John Huggan: Racism in the history of golf in US

Sergio Garcia emerges from a meeting in the rules office with George O'Grady and Tim Finchem. Picture: Getty
Sergio Garcia emerges from a meeting in the rules office with George O'Grady and Tim Finchem. Picture: Getty
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GOLF’S greatest-ever player, Jack Nicklaus, happens to be colour blind.

But the same – sadly – cannot be said for the game the 18-times major champion has distinguished for so long. While differentiating between red and green is the Golden Bear’s problem, events of the last few days have highlighted only too clearly how golf in the 21st century continues to have more trouble with black and white.

Each displaying a truly shocking level of ignorance and/or lack of awareness, six-times Ryder Cup player Sergio Garcia and European Tour chief executive George O’Grady last week stumbled into the always-tangled world of race relations. Garcia’s gaffe involved the culinary preferences of his “pal” Tiger Woods – “we’ll serve him fried chicken”. O’Grady stepped back in time to label black people “coloured”.

All of which set off a firestorm of negative reaction across the globe, but particularly in the United States. Golf in the New World, of course, had for long enough an appalling record on the matter of race, a fact that these days seems to engender feelings of widespread guilt. Which is fine and even understandable, but it does tend to morph with indecent haste into what is often enough overreaction, especially amongst those for whom “offended” seems to be a euphemism for “never happier”. Whenever some unfortunate soul utters a phrase capable of even mild misinterpretation, the increasingly powerful force that is political correctness leaps immediately into action.

None of which excuses either Garcia or O’Grady. Both were guilty as charged. Ignorance is – and should be – an unacceptable line of defence in these invariably emotional matters. And both deserve most, if not all, of the opprobrium currently raining down on their bowed heads.

Still, it is worth taking a closer look at how American golf got to where it is today – a sport widely seen as the preserve of rich, right-wing, white, middle-aged men with a collectively narrow view of the wider world. Sadly, the original egalitarian principles of Scotland’s game did not follow it across the pond. Not even close, as the number of locked and guarded gates blocking entrances to so many American clubs amply demonstrates. Over there, “private” really does mean what it says.

There are, as you can imagine, a huge number of racially related horror stories. As far back as 1922, one Joseph Bartholomew designed his first golf course, the Metairie Club in his native New Orleans. It is safe to assume he was both proud and excited to do so. But he never played golf there. Not once. Because of the colour of his skin.

Things didn’t get much better post-war, although Ted Rhodes did, in 1948, become only the second African-American to play in the US Open. It wasn’t until 13 years later, however, that Charlie Sifford earned his PGA Tour card, the first black man to do so. During that same year, the PGA of America finally wiped the despicable “Caucasian clause” from their membership requirements. Even then, the nation’s club professionals had to be dragged screaming from their dearly held all-white stance. Only after California’s attorney general, Stanley Mosk, publicly humiliated the PGA by using his state’s anti-discrimination laws to force it to move the USPGA Championship from Los Angeles to Pennsylvania was change effected.

Sifford went on to win twice on tour, at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. Neither victory, however, earned him a coveted invitation to the Masters Tournament at Augusta National. Looking back, that stands as one of professional golf’s most hateful deeds. Bad enough that the Masters did not want anyone who looked like a club caddie to tee-up, the same criticism can also be levied at the competitors of the time.

Back then, those invited to play in the Masters could vote to extend the same courtesy to one more of their fellow pros. Not once though, did the likes of Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player invite Sifford. Little wonder, of course. As late as 1975, the chairman at Augusta National, the late Clifford Roberts, was announcing to the world that, as long as he lived, “players in the Masters will be white and caddies will be black”.

Fittingly, Roberts’ (who took his own life in 1977) pathetically bigoted view of the tournament he created along with Bobby Jones, was scuppered that same year when Lee Elder became the first black man to qualify for American golf’s “rite of spring”.

When Elder did make the hallowed drive up Magnolia Lane he was quick to pay tribute to the likes of Rhodes, Sifford and Pete Brown, who had won the Andy Williams San Diego Open in 1968 (beating Tony Jacklin in a play-off). All three men had endured all manner of indignities throughout their careers, all because they wanted to play golf for a living.

Sifford, in his book, the poignantly titled Just Let Me Play, detailed many of the barriers and obstacles and blatant prejudices he battled and suffered. Back in the 1950s, for example, he had somehow been allowed to enter the Phoenix Open. That was a step in the right direction, at least on the surface. But, predictably given the first tee-off time early on the opening morning, he arrived at the first green to find human excrement in the cup.

“I’m just one black man against 150 whites and I got pressures nobody ever dreamed of,” Sifford told the Associated Press in 1963. “If Palmer and Nicklaus had to play with the handicaps I have, they couldn’t beat me. But my biggest problem is that I’ve got no sponsors or backers. Every time I go to a tournament, I’m strictly on my own. I know I’m playing for my bread and butter. The result is I try too hard. I can’t be relaxed. I’m always pressing.”

Eventually and inevitably, the symbols of what was not far removed from golfing apartheid began to disappear. But it took a while. Not until 1990 did Augusta National admit its first black member, businessman Ron Townsend. And in 2004 – two years before the University of St Andrews awarded him an honorary degree – Sifford was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. In 2007, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America gave Sifford the Old Tom Morris award, its highest honour. Then, in 2009 – four decades on from what should have been a life-changing victory – the LA Open created the “Charlie Sifford exemption” for a player who represents the advancement of diversity in golf. Presumably, no Masters competitors prior to 1975 need apply for that one.

So, while much good work is being done, golf in America has some way to go when it comes to mirroring the diverse society of which it is a largely white part. Tiger Woods, 16 years on from his iconic maiden victory in the Masters, remains the only black face on the PGA Tour. There are none on the LPGA Tour. Just over half of one per cent of the PGA of America’s members is black. Which is where we came in. Like it or not – and despite the best efforts of many – golf in America remains largely a white man’s game.