In the Rough

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

John Carter, a 52-year-old retired mail carrier, is Wynn's golf partner. They're playing against Val Williams, a 79-year-old retired custodian supervisor for Miami-Dade Public Schools, and Herbert Bertha, a physician from Chicago who spends winters in Miami. They've got a little money on the match. At the end of the round, each team will pay the other 50 cents per par, and a dollar per birdie. Out on the fairway, Williams is preparing his second shot, which will have to be very long to make it to the green. He swings and, astoundingly, the ball hits a short wooden post, ricochets, and lands behind him. The men chuckle in amazement. "That's a one-in-a-million shot," marvels Carter.

On his next stroke, Wynn hits an excellent seven-iron that arcs on to the green. "Slow down, ball! Slow down, ball!" he yells. It rolls past the flag a few feet. "I'm startin' to loosen up," he says.

At the tee for par-three hole 5, Wynn points toward a tree-lined street that borders the eastern edge of the course. A Miami Springs patrol car passes. "Policemen used to come in and park over there by those trees and watch us," he recalls. "They'd just sit there while we'd tee off." Back then he viewed it as subtle harassment. But nowadays he has other, more universal concerns. "I used to pop this game," he says with a sigh, still sitting in the golf cart. "Age caught up with me." He climbs out, walks on tender knees to the tee, and positions his club. "Put this right by the flag, please," he says. He cracks a high, straight drive and watches the ball's trajectory. It plops right onto the green and comes to rest a few feet from the cup.

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

Outside the clubhouse 71-year-old Ray Thornton is ruminating on race relations at the Miami Springs course, where he's been playing since 1958. "You had rednecks and you had blacks here, but we all got along," he insists. "Just like today you've got blacks and rednecks, and we all get along."

Joe Delancey moved back to Miami in 1980 and today teaches golf at International Links Miami, formerly known as the Melreese Golf Course, near Miami International Airport. One of his protégées is Paula Tucker, a 43-year-old Opa-locka native and another trailblazer on the amateur circuit, where few black women compete. Two years ago she quit a high-paying, stressful job as a partner in a black-owned brokerage firm in Atlanta to dedicate herself to golf. "I reached the point in my life where making money was not as important as enjoying myself and having fun," she explains. "The stress of the business almost killed me. I needed to do something that was going to be fun for a while."

Currently Tucker is one of the top amateur golfers in the United States. In January she and Yvette Hemphill, another South Floridian, were the only two black women to play at the International Four-Ball Tournament at Orangebrook Country Club in Hollywood, Florida. That contest is one of the four most important competitions in the nation for female amateurs.

But sometimes she still feels a gust of that chilly racist wind that once blew hard across Southern fairways. She recalls an incident two years ago at an USGA amateur tournament in Georgia. One contestant, a white woman from the Peach State, dropped out of the competition because she was assigned to ride in the same golf cart as Tucker. "Can you imagine?" she says. "I have to deal with people who don't want me to be out there. Let me tell you, I've had some women who have been so cruel and said some things. And it's not always so much what they say; it's the looks you get.

"And," she adds, "I've also had some women who have been just wonderful because they know how difficult it is, and they've just kind of embraced me and said, 'It's okay, you're going to be okay.' So had it not been for these players who have really encouraged me to play, there's no way I would continue to do this."

She feels more at home in all-black tournaments, but Delancey is pushing her toward the tougher competitions, which are still the province of whites. "I play a lot of tournaments, and Joe's trying to get me to change from that chitlins-circuit mentality," she continues. "There are a lot of black tournaments in the South.... He's trying to get me to compete against the white girls. Because it's different. I'm new to golf. They've been competing all their lives. They've played in country clubs, in high school, in college."

Tucker also teaches alongside Delancey at classes sponsored by his Minority Junior Golf Foundation, aimed at giving black city kids a chance to learn the sport. And she consults for First Tee, a similar program funded by the City of Lauderhill in Broward County. The reason for doing so, she points out, is the same reason City Attorney John Watson argued for keeping blacks out in 1949: economics. "If you think about it, it just makes good business sense because the future of golf is with the youth," she says. "Tiger Woods has proven that. Everybody's wanting to play golf now. So the more people they can get playing golf, the more money they're going to make down the road.... All the minorities that have been kept away from golf, they're going to college now, they're making the big salaries, and they're the ones in the future that are going to spend three or four thousand dollars on golf equipment and playing on the golf courses that they're now starting to build so many of."

The goal, she says, is to make golf look more like the world.

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