When Eldrick Woods was two years old, the American Public first met him on the Mike Douglas TV Show where he demonstrated how he hit a golf ball. Our jaws dropped! By the time, he was 3, “Tiger” so nicknamed by a friend of his father’s, shot a 48 over 9 holes on the Navy Course in San Diego.
In 1997, he stunned the world when he became the first African-American to win the prestigious Master’s in Augusta, Georgia. His victory at the age of 21 by 12 strokes brought back a flood of memories to me both good and bad.
In 1968, almost 30 years earlier I had the distinct pleasure along with my friend Dennis Waitley of organizing the Andy Williams San Diego Open. The tournament ran for 20 years and for the First Five, Dennis and I acted as Co-Executive Directors.
It was here that I first learned of prejudice against Blacks in Golf. It was here that Joe Louis the great Heavyweight Champion and a man called by President Roosevelt,”A credit to his race, the Human Race” and my friend was told he couldn’t play in the 1952 San Diego Open because he was Black.
Joe, never a shrinking violet, called upon Walter Winchell America’s foremost gossip columnist to make the public aware of what was happening. Louis turned the heat up even further when he gave a scathing interview indicting the PGA in the San Diego Union. A World War II Vet, highly popular among both Whites and Blacks had aired the PGA’s dirty laundry in public.
In order to diffuse this incendiary matter, Horton Smith then President of the PGA, offered a compromise, Louis could play as an Amateur (even tough he was a professional) and would not be subject to the PGA rules.
After much squabbling and back and forth animus, Louis accepted this position only after Horton agreed that in the future Joe and four other Black Professionals would be allowed to compete on the PGA tour. Thus Blacks were allowed to play on the tour for the first time. America’s great Champion had once again delivered a victorious blow.
At the time, I was running the Tournament, America’s foremost Black Golfer was Charlie Sifford. A hard driving, cigar-chomping athlete, I am proud to say Charley entered our Inaugural Tournament. All the players, and he was the only African-American, treated him with respect and dignity. Charlie was a legend on the Black PGA tour.
In 1967, long past his Prime, he won the Long Beach Open and in 1969 he shocked the golfing world by winning the Los Angeles Open. I often thought of Satchel Paige and so many other great Black Athletes who toiled for years in the hinterlands only to come to the Major Sports, well past their Prime. Charlie Sifford became the first African-American to receive his PGA card.
However, the honor of being the first Black to win an Official PGA Tour event went to Peter Brown who won the 1964 Waco Tournament. In a long, illustrious career, Pete won every major Black Tournament. He dominated.
His only other PGA win in 17 years of competing, was at the 1970 Andy Williams San Diego Open. As I stood on the 18th Tee, during the Award Ceremony, proud that Dennis and I had given him an exemption to play,I felt a great deal of satisfaction for the “Champ” Joe Louis who had to be smiling down on us and saying,
“Way to go Pete.”
Pete won in 1970 with a 13 under par finish while the great Jack Nicklaus won in the previous year by shooting 4 under par.
It wasn’t until 1999 that another African-American would win.
Oh yeah! His name is Tiger Woods!