Advertisement

Analysis: Decline of the black golf pro

By
STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, April 12 (UPI) -- The controversy over the male-only membership policy of the Augusta National Golf Club, host of this week's Masters Tournament, is often seen as a replay of the disputes over the racial integration of golf, a past in which Augusta National also played a prominent role. Yet, following the civil rights triumphs, the history of blacks in golf has followed a trajectory that few foresaw.

At least one man did predict the future. At the end of the 1960s, Joe Dey, the first commissioner of the Professional Golfers' Association Tour, forecast that the number of black golf pros would enter a long-term decline, saying: "By the turn of the century, there may not be one black playing the Tour."

Advertisement

Although Tiger Woods is now in his 8th season as the hyper-star of the PGA Tour, Dey turned out to be more nearly correct than all those pundits who predicted that with Woods a role model, numerous black stars would quickly emerge.

Woods is now the only black on the Tour (and he's twice as Asian as he is black). That's fewer blacks than at any time since the PGA revoked its "Caucasian-only" policy in 1961. There are a few young blacks in the pipeline playing the minor league tours, but there are more blacks on the Champions Tour for over-50 golfers.

Advertisement

Even less noticed has been the collapse in the number of black caddies on the Tour at a time when the rewards of club-carrying have shot upwards. Several dozen Tour caddies make more than $100,000 annually, and New Zealander Steve Williams has even started his own charitable foundation using some of the several million dollars he has earned toting Woods' bag. Yet, over the past couple of decades, the proportion of black caddies has dropped from about half to nearly negligible.

The two trends are intertwined. The second article in this series will discuss the caddie trend and what it implies about the type of jobs that modern blacks hold, a topic that is often discussed in private but seldom in the press.

Between 1964 and 1986, five black pros (Pete Brown, Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe) won a total of 23 PGA tournaments. But in the 17 years since, no black other than Woods has won. (While certainly proud of his black heritage, Woods also consistently identifies himself as Thai, and sometimes he points out his white, American Indian and Chinese ancestry as well.)

Advertisement

In contrast to Woods, a celebrated middle-class prodigy who was putting around on national TV with Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart when he was 3, the black pioneers had to scramble. The life story of each would make a movie that is both inspiring and entertaining.

Sifford endured death threats when he became the first black to play a Southern event in 1961 and finally broke through to win for the first time in 1967 at the late age of 45.

While his white peers were on the PGA tour in the 1950s, Elder, who in 1975 became the first black to play in the Masters, made a living as the sidekick to the legendary hustler Titanic Thompson. The great gambler would seal big money bets by exclaiming: "Heck, I'll play any pair of you with just my chauffeur as my partner." Elder, dressed in livery and innocently polishing the car, would express humble surprise at being invited to play, then proceed to relieve the astonished local hotshots of their folding money.

Besides Woods, the only American minority group members in the top 125 money-winners last year were Notah Begay III, a Navajo Indian, and three Spanish-surnamed players: Robert Gamez, Pat Perez and David Berganio, Jr.

Advertisement

No American-born Latino, however, has come close in recent years to matching the record of the great Lee Trevino, a scrappy driving range pro and trick shot hustler who stunned the golf world by winning the 1968 U.S. Open. Trevino went on to earn 28 more titles through 1984. Another Mexican-American champion, Nancy Lopez, the most popular woman golfer ever, recently retired after a tremendous Ladies Professional Golf Association career that began in 1979 when she won five tournaments in a row.

The darkest-skinned player on the Tour today is not black. He's Vijay Singh, who trailed only Woods and Phil Mickelson on last year's money list. Singh was born in Fiji and is of Asian Indian descent.

Golf, of course, is an expensive game, but the number of blacks who play for fun is not insignificant. Blacks, who number one of every eight Americans, comprise about one of every 30 amateur golfers. They make up a slightly higher fraction of male players, since black women golfers are quite rare. (In contrast, for unknown reasons, women make up a high proportion of Asian-American golfers). Golf is wildly popular among retired black basketball, football and baseball stars.

Advertisement

So, based on pure percentages, one would expect about three or four blacks in the Tour's top 125 money winners. Why the shortfall? The problem appears to be that few blacks take up the game until they are fully grown. In contrast, champions typically start playing by the time they are 12. Golf experts often remarked with wonder that Greg Norman became a superstar even though he hadn't tried golf until he was 16.

Michael Jordan, America's most celebrated amateur golf fanatic, was introduced to the sport at the University of North Carolina by his fellow Tarheel Davis Love III. Jordan, one of the world's most intense competitors, has said he'd like to play the Champions Tour when he turns 50. It's never prudent to bet against Jordan, but he would need to improve dramatically over the next decade. In contrast, Love, who won the big TPC tournament in March, learned the game as a small child from his father, a famous teaching pro.

There appear to be two main reasons young blacks from well-to-do families don't play much golf.

First, since the 1960s African-American youths have narrowed their sports interests. Black youth culture has increasingly fixated on football and, especially, basketball, at the expense of other sports, even ones where black individuals continue to excel, such as track and baseball. Country club sports like golf and tennis are even less part of the hip-hop image.

Advertisement

Just as in golf, blacks mostly haven't followed up on pioneering successes in tennis. Althea Gibson won Wimbledon back in 1957 (and, impressively, went on to be the first and still only black tournament winner in the history of the LPGA). Arthur Ashe captured the U.S. Open in 1968. Yet, the only blacks to win a major championship singles title in the past 28 years have been the Williams sisters.

And, like Tiger, Venus and Serena mighty be the exceptions that prove the rule. Even though they were raised at first in Compton, Calif., the home of West Coast gangsta rap, their ambitious father kept them so isolated from black pop culture that they grew up preferring the "alternative rock" music that their white friends at tennis camps liked.

Second, today's PGA Tour stars generally grew up in families who belonged to private country clubs in the Sunbelt, where they could play year-round. While fixed-price country club memberships typically work out to be quite expensive on a cost-per-round basis for the once-a-week businessman player, they can be a good deal for the businessman if he has a child who is a passionate junior golfer who might play as many as 54 holes per day over summer vacation.

Advertisement

Very few black families, though, are members of country clubs. Even high-income blacks tend to have much lower levels of both inherited and earned wealth. Further, there is no private golf club in the United States with a primarily black membership, so African-Americans who prefer to socialize with their own race have no golf clubs to call their own. (In 1946, a black man named Bill Powell, who was tired of being discriminated against when he wanted to play golf, designed and built the Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio, but he made it a public course open to all.)

Finally, racial discrimination was almost monolithic at country clubs up through 1990. That year, the PGA Championship was embarrassed when the founder of its host, the Shoal Creek Country Club in Alabama, admitted to a reporter that blacks could not become members. Such exclusion was hardly unique to the South.

A Chicago Tribune survey in the early 1990s found that all the clubs in the Chicagoland area together boasted less than dozen black members. After that, the tournament organizing bodies imposed a racial quota. Today, clubs that want to host a prestigious pro tournament must have at least one black member.

Advertisement

The situation is better for affluent black golfers today. For example, several black business executives are now members of Augusta National, a club so exclusive that it rebuffed the application of world's richest man -- Bill Gates -- for several years before finally admitting him. Not surprisingly, however, blacks and country clubs remain rather wary of each other.

So, most black men who golf today play at public courses. For example, many blacks in the entertainment industry, such as comedian Cedric the Entertainer, flock to Robinson Ranch north of Los Angeles, where greens fees run as high as $125 per round. This kind of "country club for a day" layout offers fine golf and service without all the hassles of applying for membership.

One disadvantage, though, is that daily-fee courses aren't as good grooming grounds for the next generation as country clubs. Few families of any race want to pay a la carte to have their sons or daughters play 10 or 12 rounds a week all summer long.

Yet, black golfers were once more abundant on the Tour, and that was during a time when racial barriers were much higher than today. The second part of this series will cover the economic and psychological reasons behind the breakdown of the main route that blacks once followed to golf excellence: starting out as caddies for white golfers.

Advertisement

Latest Headlines