Golf's ugly legacy

America's fairways have been anything but fair to black golfers. Yet African-Americans can point proudly to their contributions to the game.

February 07, 1999|By Calvin H. Sinnette

IN THE APRIL 15, 1984, issue of the New York Times, a free-lance writer named Michael Dixon wrote an account of a painful experience he had as an African-American playing golf.

The article ran under the headline "On Being Black and Loving Golf," and it describes a 1979 incident at Winged Foot Country Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which introduced Dixon to golf's racial animus. A few months before the incident, Dixon had played the course on the United States Golf Association's Media Day for the 1980 U.S. Senior Open, and he'd had an enjoyable time. Much to his surprise, though, when he attempted to play in a Golf magazine outing at Winged Foot later that year, he was told by one of the magazine's senior editors that "someone had a problem" with his previous presence on the course. The editor didn't provide details about who had the problem or what caused it, but the message was clear: The editor didn't want him to play. Realizing that he was not welcome, Dixon withdrew.

Dixon was stung again when one of his friends, a new member of Philadelphia's prestigious Merion Golf Club, was told to "forget it" when he inquired about inviting Dixon to play there. "I wasn't going down to Merion to stage a demonstration, challenge their membership rules or marry the club president's daughter," Dixon explained. "I just wanted to play a golf course I'd heard and read and dreamed about. And I couldn't. Because I'm black."

Dixon's words resonate within me. They bring back a hurtful, golf-related incident that happened to me a number of years ago.

One spring in the late 1950s, I went with a group of friends to Grossinger's Hotel in the Catskill Mountains for a weekend of golf. We had planned the event since early winter, and, as the date approached, we looked forward with eagerness to our first outing of the year. We were all professional people who had no illusions about breaking par, we simply hoped the trip would usher in a new season of golf, our passion.

We did not arrive at the resort until late Friday afternoon. We had hoped to play nine holes before nightfall, but our late arrival prevented us from playing that afternoon. By the time we checked into our rooms on the hotel's top floor and got settled, it was time to get ready for dinner. After shaving, showering and changing into dinner attire, we met at the bank of elevators on our floor. The four of us got into a car heading down to the dining room. Two floors down, the elevator stopped.

When the doors opened, two elderly white women stepped in. Visibly taken aback to find themselves in close quarters with a group of black men, each woman gave a short, soft but distinctly audible gasp. Their eyes darted about, and their lips quivered as they tried to maintain their composure. The elevator doors closed, and the car renewed its descent. At this point, the more intrepid of the two looked at us with a tentative smile and asked, "Do you boys play in the band?"

We were perplexed, angry and disgusted. Though we were well-groomed, well-behaved and fairly prosperous-looking, it was all lost on the two women. Skin color was the sole measurement they used to conclude that we were musicians. Once again, blind, irrational, racial stereotyping was the order of the day. It was one hell of a way to start a weekend of golf.

Yet, my experience at Grossinger's pales in comparison to the crude indignities suffered on golf courses over they years by Charlie Sifford, Ann Gregory, Bill Spiller, Renee Powell and countless other African-Americans.

Nevertheless, despite the grudging and agonizingly slow pace of improvement in the attitude of the dominant culture, one cannot deny that favorable changes have taken place. With each year, the situation for African-American golfers has become more hopeful. Another milestone was reached in the waning days of the 1996 summer season with the arrival of Tiger Woods. His presence has the potential to drive another mighty nail into racial prejudice's coffin. Its burial is long overdue.

Not long after I began the research for my book "Forbidden Fairways," it became clear to me that a serious study of black golf history had never been written. I learned this after visiting the Library of Congress, which has 1,900 golf-related books. Short references to African-American participation in golf are mentioned in many books, but only two examined the subject in a less than cursory fashion.

In 1988, the late tennis champion Arthur Ashe published "A Hard Road to Glory." Ashe's three-volume work covers the participation of black athletes in many sports. Only five pages in the first volume, however, and 11 pages in the third are dedicated to golf.

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