Sport Golf

Sunday 18 February 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Black players are still not breaking through despite Tiger's influence

Tiger Woods. Photo: Getty Images
Tiger Woods. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Two African-American competitors appeared in the Genesis Open at Riviera CC this weekend - and contrary to plan, neither of them was Tiger Woods. While highlighting the continuing struggle against injury of the one-time invincible world number one, this situation further emphasises the dearth of real change for aspiring black golfers.

Back in 1961, California's distinguished attorney general, Stanley Mosk, ruled that if the PGA Tour were to insist on maintaining their whites-only policy, there would be no further tournaments in his state. Given the success of the Los Angeles Open, the San Diego Open, the Bing Crosby Pro-Am and the San Francisco Open, the tour clearly had much to lose.

So the odious clause was duly removed. And when the leading black player of the time, Charlie Sifford, won the Los Angeles Open as a 46-year-old in 1969, the first man he thanked was Mosk. Decades later, Woods said of Sifford: "He's one of the most courageous men ever to play this game. If it wasn't for him, who knows? I might not even have been given the chance to play golf."

The leading black competitor at Riviera this weekend is 26-year-old Harold Varner III, a native of Akron, Ohio and winner of the Australian PGA Championship last autumn. More significantly, Varner gained the distinction in 2015 of becoming the first black player to earn PGA Tour status from the Web.Com Tour.

His black colleague is Kevin Hall, having his first PGA start in over 10 years. In fact he's there on a Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption, awarded to a golfer from a minority background. Hall, 34, lost his hearing through meningitis as a two-year-old but began playing golf when he was nine and now plays the mini-tours.

Such a modest representation is quite disturbing, especially when set against the optimism generated by Woods' sensational Masters victory of 1997. Yet we can be satisfied that it wouldn't surprise Sifford, were he still alive.

As it happens, this year marks the golden jubilee of Sifford's momentous victory in the 1967 Greater Hartford Open, where he was preceded as champion by Art Wall and followed by the even more notable Billy Casper. It was the first fully sanctioned PGA event ever won by an African American. The impact was electric. A player previously noted simply as the personal professional to singer Billy Eckstein was now a national sporting figure.

Two years later, Sifford trod the same Rancho Municipal turf as Arnold Palmer had done for successive LA Open victories earlier that decade. This time, the reaction in both black and white communities was heightened by the fact that Sifford opened with a 63, which he rounded off with a record back nine of 28.

The report in Sports Illustrated was memorable, not least for its quaintness. "Charlie Sifford, negro, 46, father-of-two, his own golf teacher, a short little man with a moustache, was a curious hero in a country-club sport," it said. "A black lady journalist raced onto the green and kissed him. Don Newcombe, the ex-Dodgers pitcher, ran out and grabbed his hand. Huge, happy swarms of Charlie's fans, all colors (sic), surrounded him, tearfully delirious. Black guys who can't play the game whooped, and white guys who've never seen a country club whooped."

Though one year seemed far too short a time in which to measure the likely impact of the Woods Masters on prospective black golfers, Sifford was remarkably prescient in his assessment in late April 1998.

"I don't see much future for black golf," he said bleakly. "In 1965, nine black players were on the PGA Tour, including me. Today there are two: 49-year-old Jim Thorpe, ranked 225th on the money list last year, and Tiger, a great player who correctly says he is multi-ethnic, not exactly black. I doubt we'll see many more blacks on the tour anytime soon, because so much is working against them."

Interestingly, the two main problems Sifford cited were golf buggies (carts) and public courses. "Caddying used to give black kids a way into the game, but now golf carts have taken over," he said. "And where there used to be affordable, accessible public courses, they are now crowded and expensive."

Pointing to the now-defunct United Golf Association (UGA), the so-called black tour, he called it a proving ground for players like himself and Lee Elder. "I'm not saying the old days were so great - I faced some blatant and vicious prejudice," he said. "But things are now going backwards. It disappoints the hell out of me."

While conceding that Woods achieved some progress by getting millions to view him as an Augusta hero, he couldn't help noticing that "out of 75 kids in the junior programme at my home course, not one is black". Which led him to conclude that the game was failing the founders of the UGA in the 1940s, not to mention black sportsmen like fighter Joe Louis and baseball's Jackie Robinson, who supported them.

Sifford famously recalled how Robinson had asked him if he was a quitter, before adding: "OK, if you're not a quitter, go ahead and take the challenge." Sadly, Sifford found himself wondering decades later "whether the greatest game in the world has room for a few more faces like mine."

In 2014, President Obama presented the trailblazing sportsman with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award. A year later, Sifford died on February 3 at the grand old age of 92.

Varner, whose father gave him a set of clubs at the tender age of two, would have Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Palmer rounding out his dream fourball. "I think I have a great opportunity this year to do some special things," he said recently. High on his list will be to qualify for the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone on August 3, which means making the world top-50.

"My aunt worked at Firestone for 20-something years, and going back there is a really exciting prospect," he said.

Interestingly, there was no mention of the fact that Woods happened to make the place virtually his own, with eight victories there up to 2013.

Either way, having Varner on tour is clearly important, even though a single black presence no longer seems to hold the significance it once did. It's serious numbers that Sifford yearned for - and that's simply not happening.

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