On January 19, 1952, Professional Golfers Association president Horton Smith announces that a seven-man committee “almost unanimously” votes to allow Black golfers to compete in PGA co-sponsored events. With the announcement, Smith hopes that Black golfers participate in the next two events, the Phoenix Open and Tucson Open. “I shall feel our efforts here will have gone for little if the plan doesn’t work out the next two events,” he says.
The push for inclusion into a sport dominated by whites came after pressure from former boxing champion Joe Louis, a talented amateur golfer. At the San Diego Open on January 17, 1952, Louis competed in the PGA-sanctioned event as an invited amateur. (As an amateur golfer, Louis wasn’t governed by PGA rules.) But professional Bill Spiller, a Black golfer, was denied entry in the tournament.
In response, Louis criticized the PGA, telling the New York Times, “I want people to know what the PGA is… We’ve got another Hitler to get by.” Louis told the Los Angeles Sentinel, “This is the last major sport in America in which Negroes are barred.”
The pressure from Louis worked, and Louis, Spiller, Ted Rhodes and Eural Clark would go onto break the PGA’s color barrier at the Phoenix Open.
But it would take years for the sport to approach full integration. In 1961, Charles Sifford became the first Black golfer to earn a PGA Tour card. He won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open Invitational and 1969 Los Angeles Open.
In 1975, Lee Elder became the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters—considered the sport’s most prestigious tournament—at famed Augusta National Golf Club. The club didn’t have a Black member until 1990 (businessman Ron Townsend) or female member until 2012 (former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice).