Full access to the PGA Tour for Black golfers was a 28-year odyssey!

“Did You Know”
Full access to the PGA Tour for Black golfers was a 28-year odyssey!

When the PGA of America was founded in 1916 there was a haphazard schedule of golf tournaments around the USA for white male golf professionals only. By 1930 the program had become organized into what was known as the PGA Tour.

With no access to the white tournaments the Black golfers formed the United Golfers Association in the 1920s with a series of tournaments. They initiated a Negro National Open in 1926, which later had a trophy donated by Albert Harris, a Black Washington DC lawyer. Howard Wheeler and Charlie Sifford, two Black golf professionals who played out of Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Golf Club, each won the tournament six times.

In 1934 Chicago’s Robert “Pat” Ball, a Black golf professional, played in the PGA Tour’s St. Paul Open. He didn’t finish in the money, but he did have some decent scores that included a 72 in the second round. In September Ball won the 1934 Negro National Championship for a second time.

At its national meeting in November 1934 the PGA added a “Caucasians Only” clause to its constitution, concerning membership in its association.

In 1942 George S. May invited Black golfers to enter his tournament in Chicago, the Tam O’Shanter Open. The prior week seven Black golfers had been barred from playing in the Hale America Open, also held in Chicago.  With a sponsor’s exemption, two-time Negro National Champion Howard Wheeler did not have to qualify for Tam O’Shanter. Six of the other Black entries, including Pat Ball, made it through Monday qualifying for the tournament. Three, including Wheeler, made the cut but didn’t finish in the money. An estimated 2,000 spectators followed the long driving Wheeler, who played with a cross-handed grip. In the following years Black golfers continued to play in PGA Tour events at Tam O’Shanter.  

 Howard Wheeler was allowed to attempt to qualify for the 1947 Philadelphia Inquirer Open, which he did with ease. He made the cut but missed the money. The tournament was in its fourth year, but this was the first time a Black golfer was given the opportunity to qualify in Philadelphia. The following year Wheeler qualified again for the Inquirer Open, once again making the cut and missing the money. Charlie Sifford, who like Wheeler played out of Cobbs Creek, made his first appearance in a PGA Tour event, qualifying and missing the cut.

Beginning in 1945 the Los Angeles Open had begun to accept the entries from Black golfers. Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller had some success, qualifying and making the cut several times.

Spiller, who had attended college and had a teaching certificate, had taught school in a rural Texas town for $60 a month. He moved to Los Angeles to work as a Red Cap at the Union Station (RR) where he could make more money. It was there that he took up golf in 1942 at age 29. Four years later he was beating nearly everyone. Twice he qualified for the Los Angeles Open as an amateur.  

At the 1948 Los Angeles Open Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller finished 23rd and 31st. The PGA Tour guidelines stated if a player finished in the top 60 at a PGA Tour tournament they were eligible to play in the next tournament, without having to qualify. Next up was the Bing Crosby Pro-Am. With 70 pros and 70 amateurs playing on one course, Cypress Point, there was no space for non exempt players who had been in the top 60 at L.A. Instead, their eligibility shifted to the next week’s Richmond (CA) Open.

Spiller and Rhodes filed entries for the Richmond Open and played a couple of practice rounds, only to be informed that they were not eligible to play, because they were not PGA “Approved Players”. Along with its members, the PGA had “Approved Players” cards for outstanding players who had turned pro but were not yet PGA members. They were all Caucasians.

At that time the PGA had a “PGA Co-sponsored” contract which was presented to each tournament sponsor to sign. In signing that contract the sponsor paid the PGA $1,500 to run the tournament. The sponsor had to put the total purse dollars into an escrow account, which guaranteed the players would be paid. The PGA would run the tournament from beginning to end, including scoring and rules. Along with that, the PGA would stage a golf clinic on Wednesday afternoons where 12 or so players demonstrated golf shots for the fans. Some sponsors, like Tam O’Shanter or Los Angeles, didn’t sign the contract. They just told the PGA they would run the tournament on their own. Due to offering more prize money than most other tournaments, the PGA stepped aside.    

Before the Richmond Open was completed a San Francisco lawyer had filed a $315,000 lawsuit against the PGA of America and the Richmond Golf Club on behalf of Rhodes and Spiller, who were not allowed to participate. The Richmond winner, Dutch Harrison, was issued a blank check because the law suit had frozen all funds.

Six weeks later PGA officials informed Spiller and Rhodes that something would be worked out for the future. They withdrew the lawsuit. Nothing changed. Then Spiller applied to the PGA for an “Approved Players” card. Two PGA members from California singed his application as sponsors. Three years later Spiller’s application was still being processed. To avoid any challenges some tournaments went as far as changing their names from Open to Invitation.

In 1952 after failing to qualify for the L.A. Open, Spiller and a Black amateur, Eural Clark, filed entries to the next full field PGA tournament, the San Diego Open. Due to a clerical error, they were assigned lockers and starting times for the qualifying rounds. With this tournament being PGA co-sponsored they were then denied the right to play. At the same time the San Diego sponsors had invited recently retired heavy weight boxing champion Joe Louis, who was Black and an amateur, to play in the tournament.

Under protest, Spiller and Clark played in the qualifying rounds. Spiller qualified. PGA President Horton Smith was in Pebble Beach playing in the Crosby Pro-Am. When contacted by the press, Smith stated he needed to confer with his PGA Executive Committee and would make a ruling when he arrived in San Diego.     

When Smith arrived he held a meeting with his seven man PGA tournament committee. Spiller barged into the meeting and stated his case before being forced to exit.  After a meeting that lasted two hours Smith ruled that Spiller couldn’t play. He said Spiller was not a PGA member or a PGA Tour “Approved Player”. Smith said that Louis could play, as an amateur did not fall under PGA by-laws. Spiller was quoted as saying “That Horton Smith, he can talk the paint off the wall.”

At first Louis refused to play saying the tournament should be called off. Louis stated that he would double the $2,000 that the tournament sponsors had promised a charity. Louis said, “This is the biggest fight of my life.” Louis, who had been sponsoring a tournament in Detroit for the Black golfers for several years, compared Horton Smith to Hitler.

Walter Winchell interviewed Louis on one of his radio broadcasts that was heard by 20 million people. Jackie Robinson sent a telegram to Louis stating his support. Louis agreed to play in the tournament, saying he hoped it might help the cause of Black golfers. When it was time for the first pairing to tee off in the tournament Spiller stood on the first tee refusing to let anyone tee off and making a statement. He was removed from the tee and play began. Some Black golfers called it the single most important event in their fight. Louis was criticized by some for agreeing to play when the other Black golfers were barred.

Before the tournament was over, Smith called another meeting of the tournament committee. After the meeting Smith announced an amendment to the PGA Tournament Regulations. It was called Approved Entries. The Sponsor already could invite 10 players who did not have to qualify to play. Now they could also invite ten from an Approved Entries list, which could be Black golfers, but they had to compete in Monday qualifying. Approved Entries participation was entirely up to the sponsor and the host course. A committee was created to screen Black golfers that could be Approved Entries. The chairman was Ted Rhodes with Joe Louis as co-chairman. The other three were Bill Spiller, Howard Wheeler and Eural Clark.

Smith went on record, saying the Caucasian Only clause would be critically analyzed at the PGA’s annual meeting in November with a view to modification or elimination. It probably was discussed, but it was not on the record. Everything stayed the same.

The following week at the Phoenix Open six Black golfers, including Joe Louis, were entered in the qualifying round. The six Black golfers were paired together in the first two groups off the tee. When the first group arrived on the first green and removed the flagstick to putt, they discovered the cup was filled with human excrement. There was a 30-minute delay for green keepers to clean up the mess and cut a new cup. Rhodes, Spiller, Clark and Sifford qualified.  Rhodes made the cut. The PGA had kicked the can down the road. There was some opportunity for Black golfers, but limited, as it was only at northern venues or the west coast.

In 1955 and 1956 Black golf professionals played in the Philadelphia Daily News Open held at Cobbs Creek Golf Club. Charlie Sifford showed his capability, tying for sixth in 1956.   

In 1960 it was announced that the 1962 PGA Championship would be held in Los Angeles. Spiller mentioned to someone that California Black golfers like Charlie Sifford could not play in the tournament. Sifford had played in the US Open that year and finished in the money. Spiller’s man contacted California attorney general Stanley Mosk and Mosk informed the PGA that its championship would not be held in California unless Sifford was in the tournament. To play in the tournament, Sifford as a non PGA member had to be in the top 25 money winners on the PGA Tour. With limited access to the PGA Tour, he wasn’t.

The Southern California PGA Section presented a resolution at the 1960 national meeting that would eliminate the Caucasian Only line from the PGA’s constitution. The resolution did not receive the required 2/3 vote to pass. The PGA moved its championship to Aronimink Golf Club in Philadelphia.

At the 1961 PGA meeting the PGA’s Board of Directors presented the same resolution to remove the Caucasian Only clause. It was seconded by several PGA Sections and passed 87 to 0. Twenty-seven years after the Caucasian Only clause was put into its constitution it was finally removed. Black golfers could now be PGA members with full privileges.  

Robert “Pat” Ball, competing in the 1934 St. Paul Open, may be the reason why the PGA added the Caucasian Only clause to its constitution. Then it was Bill Spiller who worked the hardest and achieved the most success to overturn it. By the time it happened, Spiller’s window of opportunity had closed.

For more information on the history of the Black golf professionals, the three books listed below might be of interest to you.

Forbidden Fairways, by Calvin H. Sinnette, 1998
Just Let Me Play, by Charlie Sifford and James Gullo, 1992   
Uneven Lies, by Pete McDaniel, 2000

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