60 years ago, PGA Of America ended black segregation

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On November 9, 1961, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) of America, a powerful professional golf organization, repealed the “caucasians only” rule. The almighty PGA was finally allowing non-white golfers to compete in some of the sport’s greatest competitions.

Until November 9, 1961, it was not just the balls that were all white on the grounds of the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) of America. The players also had to be exclusively white in this association which gave birth to the legendary PGA Tour [1], which is to golf what the NBA is to basketball.

Before that date, PGA Of America competitions were in fact reserved for “Caucasian” athletes, a typology often used in North America to refer to white people. A segregation against which two African-American golfers born in 1913, Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes, particularly fought.

Bill Spiller’s fight

In 1948, Spiller and Rhodes prepare to compete in the Open in Richmond, California, which they qualified for. But the PGA Of America is blocking their way to the tournament. It invokes a point of regulation of its statutes, established in 1934: ” Professional golfers of the Caucasian race, over the age of 18 years, residing in North or South America, and who have served at least five years in the profession […] are eligible for membership. »

The two black players, outraged by this discrimination, do not want to stop there. Especially Spiller. They then hire a lawyer. They insist on one point: the PGA prevents them from exercising their professional activity. They rely for this on the Taft-Hartley Act, which has regulated part of labor law in the United States since 1947.

In difficulty on the legal ground, the PGA offers them an amicable agreement. She promises that blacks will now be allowed to line up. But she will not, ensuring that only white golfers will be invited to her competitions …

American golfer Bill Spiller in 1952. Bettmann Archive – Bettmann

Boxing superstar Joe Louis steps onto the green

In 1952, surprise: Bill Spiller and especially a certain Joe Louis are invited to the San Diego Open. Joe Louis is one of the greatest boxers of all time and one of the first black icons in world sport. However, the young retiree from the rings has been a golf lover and a distinguished golfer since the 1930s.

The PGA then tries to block the road to Spiller and Louis. But, faced with the outcry over the exclusion of Louis, the PGA must resolve to let the former world heavyweight champion participate as “an amateur exempted from qualifying”. The superstar takes advantage of the event as a platform to denounce to the major American media ” the racial prejudices of golf, the last sport in which they still exist “. Joe Louis will then finance the careers of several black golfers. He will also create First Tee, an association which helps underprivileged children to learn golf.

Bill Spiller (left) and Joe Louis, playing golf in 1952.

Bill Spiller (left) and Joe Louis, playing golf in 1952. Bettmann Archive – Bettmann

In 1961, the threat that rocked the PGA

During the decade that followed, African-American golfers had extremely limited access to PGA Of America competitions. In 1960, Marxist writer Harry Braverman encouraged Spiller to contact California State Attorney General Stanley Mosk. The latter, sensitive to the issue of civil rights, takes the case in hand. He threatens the PGA: it will no longer be able to sponsor events in California until it removes its discriminatory rule. Mosk then proceeds to contact attorneys general in other states to make similar arrangements.

This time the PGA is forced to back down, genuinely. On November 9, 1961, at a General Assembly in Florida, she repealed the “Caucasians only” rule. Daily The New York Times Headline: ” Pro Golf organization ends ban on non-whites as members. PGA Eliminates the clause restricting its membership to white pro golfers. »

A breach that paved the way for champions like Tiger Woods

For players the age of Spiller and Rhodes, however, it is too late. On the other hand, they paved the way for other generations of players. In 1961, Charlie Sifford became the first black to compete in the PGA Tour. [1] as a pro.

In 1964, Pete Brown became the first African American to win a competition. In 1975, Lee Eder was the first black to compete in the prestigious Ausgusta Masters. And in 1997, Tiger Woods won this legendary Grand Slam tournament, breaking a new barrier.

In 2009, the contrite and repentant PGA of America granted membership to Spiller and Rhodes, as well as honorary membership status to Joe Louis, posthumously. Through their fights, they helped open golf to the world.

American golfer Tiger Woods, July 14, 2020 in Dublin (Ohio)

American golfer Tiger Woods, July 14, 2020 in Dublin (Ohio) SAM GREENWOOD GETTY IMAGES/AFP/Archives


[1] From 1968, the PGA tour became an independent structure from the PGA Of America.

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