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Los Angeles Open has been more 'open' than most

Blacks had trouble getting into many PGA events because of 'Caucasian-only' policy, but Bill Spiller, Ted Rhodes and Charlie Sifford helped kick open the doors.

February 18, 2009|Daniel Wexler

For as long as golf has been contested professionally, there have been "opens" -- that is, events in which all golfers, amateur or professional, skilled enough to play their way through qualifying, can earn the right to participate against the world's best.

Such was the body of the advertisement, at least. But for many years, the fine print told a different story.

In reality, through most of the 20th century, events on the professional golf circuit (not officially known as the PGA Tour until 1968) were by no means open. African Americans and other minorities were, for many years, excluded from participation, generally as a courtesy to host clubs that were, universally, Caucasian-only.

A single early exception took place in 1896, when a black golfer named John Shippen entered the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills (his place of employment) and, after U.S. Golf Assn. President Theodore Havermeyer stared down a threatened boycott from some less-tolerant members of the field, actually finished in a tie for fifth.

Though Shippen participated in several more U.S. Opens, his was truly a lonely road, for no other black golfer is known to have crossed golf's color line until 1942, when a long-hitting Atlanta-based professional named Howard Wheeler participated in the Tam O'Shanter Open in Chicago, finishing tied for 63rd.

Though few major tournaments were brazen enough to officially record their exclusionary policies in writing, it is generally believed that beyond the carnival-like Tam O'Shanter (which several times invited former heavyweight champion Joe Louis to play) and the U.S. and Canadian national championships, the lone regular event on the professional schedule not to exclude minorities was the Los Angeles Open.

The L.A. event's genuine openness first became apparent when Charley Chung, a Hawaii native of Chinese descent, made multiple appearances during his 1920s stint as professional at the Redlands Country Club -- an opportunity Chung was not always extended at other professional tournaments.

But a more indelibly drawn line was broken in 1945 when Los Angeles resident Bill Spiller, an African American playing out of the old 36-hole Sunset Fields public courses, quietly earned his way into the L.A. Open with rounds of 75-76 in Wednesday qualifying.

A protege of five-time PGA Tour winner Ray Mangrum (older brother of Hall of Famer Lloyd), Spiller's subsequent presence at Riviera drew surprisingly little attention in the mainstream press, perhaps because it was overshadowed by the legendary Babe Zaharias, whose own Wednesday success allowed her to become the only woman ever to qualify her way into a PGA Tour event. Thus operating well off the radar, Spiller quietly posted rounds of 83-80 and missed the cut.

But his storming of the bastion would not prove an isolated event. By the late 1940s, when Louis became a near-scratch golfer and sponsored a talented black pro from Tennessee named Ted Rhodes, the idea of African Americans trying to compete against white pros was gaining momentum. Spiller and Rhodes qualified for the 1946 Los Angeles Open and several more thereafter, each playing well enough that their entries were frequently far more than symbolic.

In 1947, for example, Rhodes opened with a fine 71 at Riviera, good enough to stand him in sixth place (he would ultimately tie for 29th), and he finished tied for 20th a year later. Spiller gained great attention in 1948 when an opening-round 68 placed him in a tie with Ben Hogan, only one stroke off the lead. After falling to sixth at the halfway mark, he would ultimately finish tied for 31st.

The 1948 event also played an important role in the struggle of minority golfers to gain equal access to PGA-sponsored events, for in those days PGA rules stipulated that players finishing among the top 60 one week were exempt from qualifying the next. Thus following their strong finishes at Riviera, Spiller and Rhodes headed north for the Richmond Open -- where they were promptly denied entry.

The pair filed a lawsuit against the PGA of America, which insisted on maintaining its "Caucasians-only" clause. It was the first step in a 13-year process that ultimately led Spiller to take his case to California Atty. Gen. Stanley Mosk. Mosk, in turn, threatened to ban the PGA from contesting events in the Golden State, ultimately resulting in the discriminatory clause's 1961 demise.

The prime beneficiary of this change was Los Angeles resident Charlie Sifford, who, with both Spiller and Rhodes too far past their primes to seriously compete, quickly became the first African American member of the PGA Tour. Though Pete Brown would actually be the first black player to win an official tour event (the 1964 Waco Turner Open in Burneyville, Okla.), Sifford was the more prominent player, and the peak of his career came, rather fittingly, at the 1969 Los Angeles Open.

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