Monday, 30 September 2013

Exclusion and racism in golf

There’s the tale of Zeke Hartsfield, a superb competitive golfer who used to caddie for Bobby Jones at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta and wondered why he wasn’t allowed to play Candler Park, another course in the Georgia capital. So he decided to tee it up there one morning in 1939. And when he arrived at the third hole, he was greeted by a posse of policemen who slapped a pair of handcuffs on Hartsfield and hauled him off to jail. Because he was black.

And also the story of Charlie Sifford, who carded a 68 to lead the first round of the 1960 Greater Greensboro Open and then listened to a man threaten his life over the telephone that night. As Sifford played that following morning, he heard the same man taunting him, following him around the course with a group of hecklers who constantly yelled in his backswing. And you can’t imagine anyone enduring something that bad.

But then you read about the Phoenix Open in 1952, which was one of the first times blacks were allowed to compete in a PGA Tour event. Sifford teed off in the first foursome, with boxer Joe Louis, who was a top amateur golfer as well, and two other African-Americans. And when he went to pull the flag out of the first hole, he saw that the cup was filled with human excrement. Because he, and six other golfers competing in that event, were black.

You have a hard time with stories like these, but at the same time you find you cannot stop reading about them. They make you angry and embarrassed. Sometimes they even make you smile. There was the time, for example, that Bill Spiller, a top African-American golfer who was the first to legally challenge the Tour’s despicable and long-standing Caucasian-only rule, crashed a country club dance after the Bakersfield Open. Dressed in coat and tie, he walked right to the head table in the clubhouse, where blacks were not allowed, and asked the wife of the club president to dance. She obliged, and the two of them took a whirl around the floor.

There are tales of triumph that make you glow. Like the one of Pete Brown when he became the first black to win a PGA Tour event (the 1964 Waco Turner Open). Or of Sifford winning the 1969 Los Angeles Open and setting off a long celebration in his adopted hometown that culminated in a parade through Watts. Or of Lee Elder becoming the first black to play in the Masters in 1975. Or of Calvin Peete capturing 11 PGA Tour titles in the 1980s.

But more than anything else, the stories make you sad. Sad for a guy like Spiller, who was never able to make a consistent living at the thing he loved most and did best – and that was hit a golf ball – because he, too, was black.

“The man was a great player and college-educated,” says John H. Kennedy, a longtime Boston Globe reporter who now teaches writing at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. “But he had to work as a railroad porter because he wasn’t able to compete on the PGA Tour. Or even work as a PGA pro because they wouldn’t let him become a member. He fought the PGA most of his life. And even on his death bed a dozen years ago, he still talked about his hatred for the organization. He hated what it did to him, and to others.”

Kennedy knows a lot about Spiller and Sifford and Elder and Peete because he has just written a history of African-American golfers. Titled “A Course of Their Own” (Stark Books), it gives a very readable, detailed and often harrowing account of blacks and their involvement in the game. Or should I say lack of involvement, because most of the golf establishment seemed determined to keep them out of the sport for as long as possible.

“I don’t think most people understand how long African-Americans have been playing golf,” Kennedy says. “They had their own tour for a while, sort of a Negro Leagues of golf, and there were some great players. I also don’t think many people really understand how hard it has been for them. They were shot at for playing white-only courses. They were arrested. Their lives were threatened. And all because they wanted to play a game.”

“A Course of Their Own” is a compelling read, a tough read, an enlightening read. And, perhaps most of all, it is an important read for anyone who knows and loves the game of golf.

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