In the Rough

A half-century before the Tiger Woods era, black Miamians fought a losing battle to hit the links

During the Forties and early Fifties, Delancey played in tournaments sponsored by the United Golf Association (UGA), which had been established in the Twenties by black golfers in the Northern states. He won UGA national tournaments in 1953, 1954, and 1955, in Kansas City, Dallas, and Detroit respectively. But he was unable to challenge the champions of the nation's largest golf organization, the United States Golf Association (USGA). The USGA didn't bar blacks, but many clubs that hosted USGA tournaments did. As a result Delancey couldn't compete in enough tournaments to qualify for the nation's biggest and most prestigious competition for nonprofessionals, the USGA Amateur Championship.

Moreover Delancey couldn't hope to play in the U.S Open, which accepts both amateurs and pros, because the USGA then required (and still demands) entrants to belong to a golf club. And during that period, Delancey could not find a club where he lived -- in St. Louis and Los Angeles -- that allowed black members. The professional echelon was out of reach because the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) still had a whites-only rule, though blacks could play in some PGA "invitationals" at integrated clubs. (Facing lawsuits by state attorneys general from across the United States, the PGA dropped the exclusionary rule in 1961.)

Delancey's game kept improving, though, and he competed as an amateur in PGA tournaments such as the Los Angeles and San Diego opens, as well as the independently run Tam O'Shanter Open in Chicago. Finally in 1956, at age 38, he was allowed to join a municipal golf club in Encino, California, and was able to establish an official handicap, a requirement for entering USGA championships. That year, at Harding Park Golf Club in San Francisco, he became the first black to make it into the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur Public Links tournament, one of the most prestigious competitions for nonprofessionals. (In 1959 Bill Wright, a Seattle golfer, became the first black to win the Public Links.)

PGA officials barred Los Angeles-based golfer Bill Spiller from the 1952 San Diego Open for one reason: He wasn't white
Bettman Archives
PGA officials barred Los Angeles-based golfer Bill Spiller from the 1952 San Diego Open for one reason: He wasn't white

South Florida lagged in its response to the Supreme Court rulings regarding education and recreation. In 1956 local black groups, including the Miami chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality, filed several lawsuits to desegregate Dade County schools. "Every other night or so, someone would call and say, 'Nigger, get out of town. Cut out this foolishness. You know better,' all this kind of stuff," recalls 77-year-old John O. Brown, then the local CORE president. "Your life was in danger when you got into any of these battles to desegregate any facet of life."

Attorney Grattan Graves, who also was suing to end segregated public bus seats, filed another lawsuit in 1957 to quash the Mondays-only rule at the Miami Springs course. When he received a letter signed by the Ku Klux Klan, warning him not to continue his legal battle, he hired a white informant to infiltrate a KKK meeting. The undercover operation led to the arrest of Klan members plotting an arson attack on a black family that had moved into a white area. "Things were dangerous around here," Graves recalled in a 1988 documentary series, Legacy, produced for WLRN-TV (Channel 17). (In 1957 Johnson was serving as the second black judge on Miami's Negro Municipal Court, a black-controlled tribunal set up in 1950 in Overtown. He chose not to participate in the golf course lawsuit, he says, because it would have been a conflict of interest.) As a result of the lawsuit, officials relented and dropped the Mondays-only rule at Miami Springs and other public courses.

Delancey still lived in California but was returning to South Florida often to golf, especially for the North-South Tournament, which had been permanently moved to Miami Springs. He won the competition four years straight, from 1957 to 1960. Although the tournament was predominantly black, he says, a few white players competed. "I haven't been to a black tournament yet," he says, "where they would tell a white player he couldn't play, or any player. He'd just sign up."

Delancey turned pro in 1956, but he was 43 years old by the time the PGA dropped its whites-only rule in 1961. Charlie Sifford, the premier black professional at the time, was age 39. Older black players, such as Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller, who could have competed at the upper echelon of the PGA, went down in history as members of golf's lost generation. Everyone lost track of Joseph Rice.

Golf is just golf, but sometimes if you look closely enough, it is a reflection of society. Look at the public courses in Miami-Dade County today and you'll see fairways and greens among the most racially integrated in the nation. The Miami Springs course has been particularly subject to change recently; the clubhouse was renovated last year, the starter's shack is gone, and financially strapped City of Miami turned the course over to the City of Miami Springs in 1998.

Sidney Wynn, who caddied here as a child, stands on stiff arthritic legs on a recent Monday, preparing to tee off at hole 4 with three other members of the Miami Golf Connection, a club he founded in 1983. Most of the 35 members are black, but a few whites also belong. "Only one guy can beat me: Tiger Woods," he intones with false bravado, as he lines up his driver. He hits an arrow-straight ball, which falls far short of where he would have put it in his prime. Wynn played shortstop and third base for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League back in 1952 and says he also endured racism in that sport. Questioned about whether he has encountered bigotry on the links since the Eighties, he searches for an example. When he comes up with one, its ambiguity is telling. "We'd be playing slow and a white group would be behind us yellin'. That's about it," he notes.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets