The PGA of America rescinded its “Caucasians only” rule after years of protests and legal fights by black stars Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes. Legendary US heavyweight boxer Joe Louis was also instrumental in bringing about the change following a public outcry after he was barred from a tournament.
It paved the way for Tiger Woods to eventually dominate one of the world’s most elitist sports – and the last in North America and Europe to allow segregation.
Although the majority of players remain white, the modern game now contrasts markedly with Caucasian-only era. A British Pathé newsreel showing the 1961 Wills tournament in Australia – won by South African Gary Player – reveals only white competitors.
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The first step to ending racism at the Professional Golfers’ Association of America – one of many national PGAs – came in 1948. In that year Spiller and Rhodes were barred from playing in the PGA-organised Richmond Open in California despite qualifying in a non-affiliated tournament.
They were angered after being told that they needed to be members – but couldn’t join because the organisation’s constitution prohibited blacks. So they hired lawyer Jonathan Rowell to file a lawsuit outfit, which he alleged the PGA was an illegal closed shop that barred black players from earning a living.
Its president Horton Smith, the winner of the U.S. Masters tournament, convinced them to drop the suit after promising to end discrimination. He reneged on the deal and instead encouraged sponsors to call their contests 'Open Invitationals' – and then not ask any black golfers to play.
However, the organisers of the inaugural San Diego Open in 1952 were not aware of this informal agreement and invited Spiller and Louis, who had become an talented golfer after retiring from boxing. But, once the PGA heard of this, it promptly barred both men from the tournament.
This move sparked outrage across the US, where Louis had earned himself national hero status after successfully defending the heavyweight title between 1937 and 1939. In a bid to appease the public, the PGA partly relented and announced that black golfers could compete as “approved entries” if invited – but they never were.
Spiller eventually gave up on playing in 'negro opens' and later served as a caddy at the Hillcrest Country Club in California. His skill – and the injustice he had endured - was noted by political writer Harry Braverman after being helped during a game in 1960.
Braverman encouraged Spiller to contact the state’s attorney general Stanley Mosk, who told the PGA it could not host tournaments on California’s public courses unless it removed its Caucasians-only clause from its constitution.
Mosk encouraged other states to follow and began trying to evict the PGA from private links as well. A year later, the organisation eventually bowed to pressure and reluctantly dropped its colour bar.
By 1961, however, Spiller was 48 years old and far from his best and could manage only 14th place in the Labatt Open in Canada in his only fully professional season. It took until 1964 for a black player to win a PGA-sanctioned event after Pete Brown captured the Waco Turner Open.
Tiger Woods became the first non-white player to win a major after scooping the Masters in 1997.
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