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The day Joe Louis KO’d golf’s heavyweights

Boxer Joe Louis playing golf
The late heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, enjoying a round of golf at Detroit’s Rackham Golf Course, played a key role in ending the PGA of America’s ‘Caucasian only’ clause.

Boxing’s ‘Brown Bomber’ went toe-to-toe with the PGA of America on Jan. 13, 1952, in California over the ‘Caucasian only’ clause

The PGA of America addressed an era of injustice in its organization’s history when it voted in July to rename the Horton Smith Award. Instead, the PGA will present the Professional Development Award to a PGA member for outstanding contributions to professional education. Eventually, the honor should be called the Joe Louis Award, naming it after the legendary heavyweight boxing champion. I’ll explain.

The Horton Smith Award, presented annually since 1965, had to be renamed after acknowledging Smith’s support of the “Caucasian only” membership rule during his service as PGA president in 1952-54. The provision that excluded non-white professional golfers was part of the PGA bylaws from 1934 to 1961, but it was Louis who stood toe-to-toe with Smith over the rule at the 1952 San Diego Open, calling him “another Hitler.”

A 2-handicapper and avid golfer, Louis had been invited to compete in the tournament by the San Diego County Chevrolet Dealers, a prominent sponsor of the $10,000 tournament. “We are most anxious that Joe, one of America’s true sportsmen, play our event,” a spokesman told The New York Times.

But on Jan. 13, 1952, the PGA notified tournament officials that PGA rules banned Louis from participating under its “Caucasian only” membership and that the rules also applied to Bill Spiller and Eural Clark, two Black professionals from Los Angeles who sought to enter as qualifiers. According to a New York Times story, the tournament committee buckled under the authority of the PGA led by Smith and notified all participants that entries were subject to PGA rules.

If Smith thought that applying the ban would keep Joe Louis from going to San Diego, he was wrong. Golf had become Louis’ passion, and many of the top Black professional golfers at the time were his closest friends. He was introduced to the sport a few weeks before his first fight with Max Schmeling, in 1936, and his compulsion to play was blamed sometimes for his 12th-round loss by knockout, with accusations that the 8-1 betting favorite cut his road work to play golf.

In early 1942, as the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, Louis enlisted in the Army. He staged a reported 96 boxing exhibitions for an estimated 2 million troops, and he rose to the rank of technical sergeant. Meanwhile, he kept playing golf.

“I’ll load a couple of cars full of friends and with our own caddies, and we’ll go a couple of hundred miles or a thousand just to play a match,” Louis told The New York Times in 1948. “I shot around 120 when I first played in 1936. Now, I get around in 72 sometimes. But mostly in 75, 76. I really love golf.”

Later, he hired Teddy Rhodes, the best black golfer of the 1940s, to travel with him and be his personal instructor and playing partner. Rhodes was one of the best golfers of his era, having competed against Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson and was a legend on the United Golf Association tour, the Negro Leagues of golf, where he won the Joe Louis Invitational in Detroit for four consecutive years.

There were other noted Black pros, including Spiller, Howard Wheeler of Atlanta and later Charlie Sifford of Los Angeles. Spiller and Rhodes would compete in multiple Los Angeles Opens in the 1940s, but they struggled for acceptance elsewhere.

By the time Louis was invited to play in San Diego, he had heard the stories of Black pros playing for a $500 first prize while white pros played for $2,500. Breaking the PGA’s “Caucasian only” barrier became his mission. “I want the people to know what the PGA is. We’ve got another Hitler to get by,” he said, referring to Smith.

Later, he added, “I’m battling prejudice, and I’ll keep on fighting it.”

With pressure on the PGA mounting, Smith came up with a compromise. Here was his chance to be the Branch Rickey of golf, and move to abolish the “Caucasian only” rule. Or he could have followed the path of Theodore Havemeyer, the U.S. Golf Association president, who in 1896 turned back a near boycott for allowing John Shippen, a black golfer, to compete in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

Instead, Smith used a loophole. He announced the “Caucasian only” rule still would apply, but Louis could play as an invited amateur. Clark and Spiller were not allowed to compete. Clark fell two strokes shy of qualifying; Spiller qualified but was barred because he wasn’t a PGA member. Smith said the rule could not be waived. “I’m simply applying the rules,” he said.

Louis easily could have boycotted the tournament, but he thought that his presence would keep the issue alive. So, the former heavyweight champion accepted his invitation and was paired with Smith as part of a threesome in the opening round of the 1952 San Diego Open.

“I’ve got nothing against Smith personally,” Louis said before his historic round. “I’m glad to play with him Thursday. But I’m opposed to what Smith represents: that’s prejudice.”

Louis shot 38-38–76, while Smith, a touring pro and two-time Masters champion, shot 39-34–73, eight strokes behind leader Ted Kroll of New Hartford, N.Y. Discussion about Spiller’s exclusion and the PGA’s whites-only rule continued in the locker room after the opening round, with several tour pros, including Jimmy Demaret, a three-time Masters champion; Paul Runyan, a two-time PGA Championship winner; and Joe Kirkwood Jr. of Australia, all supporting Spiller. “I play for money. Joe, here, he just plays for fun,” the 38-year-old Spiller said.

Before Smith is painted as a heartless racist, there is evidence that he favored a change in the rule. One day after the San Diego Open, which Kroll won, Smith polled the PGA tournament committee to approve participation by Blacks in PGA co-sponsored golf tournaments, thus allowing them the same treatment as non-touring professionals. “I hope that this action will allow Negro participation in both the Phoenix and Tucson opens,” Smith said of upcoming tournaments. “Otherwise, I will feel that most of my efforts have been in vain.”

Joe Louis or any other “accredited” Black golfer was allowed to compete in the Phoenix Open, sponsors declared. And the following Monday, seven Black golfers reported to the first tee at Phoenix Country Club to qualify, including Louis, Rhodes, Spiller, Clark, Sifford and Wheeler.

Louis failed to qualify, but Rhodes made the tournament and shot an even-par 71 in the opening round, leaving him five shots off the lead. Spiller had a 79, and Clark, playing as an amateur, posted an 81. The whites-only rule for membership in the PGA still applied, so Louis didn’t give up his fight for equality. “We believe that golfers, if accredited by the PGA, should be allowed to compete regardless of race, creed or color,” he said.

It wasn’t until 1961 that the “Caucasian only” rule was abolished. Pete Brown became the first African-American to win a PGA event, at the 1964 Waco Turner Open. Sifford would claim his first PGA win at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open.

Louis played a part in that process. He loved golf until his death, at age 66 in 1981. Clearly, the Brown Bomber always will be remembered for his 11-year reign as the heavyweight champion and for a record 25 successful title defenses. There was his first-round knockout of Schmeling in their rematch and his military service to his country. Louis also should be recognized for his efforts to end the color barrier in golf.

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