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Outside the Masters, Black golf in Augusta resides at the Patch

The course five miles from Augusta National is where African Americans come together around the uniqueness of their experience

Since 1960, the Par 3 Contest has been held at the Augusta National Golf Club every Wednesday during Masters week. Designed by George W. Cobb with help from the Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts, the nine-hole Par 3 course is nestled in the northeast corner of the Augusta National property, just below the Eisenhower Cabin and on the other side of Washington Road, the bustling thoroughfare that runs in front of the club in this Georgia city.

The Par 3 course layout winds through pine trees and around the spring-fed 3.5-acre Ike’s Pond and the DeSoto Springs Pond. The idea for Ike’s Pond came from President Dwight Eisenhower, who was an avid fisherman and an Augusta National member. The pond was stocked with bass and bream for Eisenhower, who vacationed at the club regularly during his eight years in the White House.

One summer morning in 1954 when the Big Course was closed and the Par 3 course was still several years from opening, a half-dozen young African American men climbed over a fence from Washington Road and entered the course property. They were trespassing but several of the young men knew this fishing spot well because they had worked at the club as caddies, and had grown up nearby in the all-Black district of Sand Hills, a popular training ground for caddies.

Black Augusta residents began settling in the Sand Hills district after the Civil War. They were mostly unskilled laborers and domestic servants who worked in the homes of white Augusta families. When the Augusta Country Club was built in 1897 on land that bordered the Sand Hills district, Black men began caddying at the club, which borders the Augusta National Golf Club, which was opened in 1932.

Roscoe Williams wasn’t much of a fisherman, but his buddy, John Elam, persuaded him to join the adventure. Willie Harris brought a cane fishing pole, earthworms for bait, and a raggedy shotgun in case they ran into rattlesnakes. As soon as the young men released their hooks into the water, bass seemingly jumped out of the water. Williams was mesmerized. He had never seen fish bite so quickly.

Less than 20 minutes into their day at Ike’s Pond, Williams said he saw Roberts and his co-founder Bobby Jones driving a golf cart around a grove of trees near the pond. Using cheap Black labor, the two men had built their dream 18-hole course and hosted their first Masters Tournament in 1934. Like most of the South in the 1930s, Augusta was shaped by the color line and the city’s new golf tournament and private club reinforced this strict racial caste system. The golfers were white and the African Americans filled subservient roles as caddies, cooks and maids. To this day, there is a plantation-style clubhouse and a tournament name, the Masters, that evokes aspects of the American South in the 1840s.

The club even borrowed from the antebellum period when slave owners would use their human property as a source of entertainment. In its early years, the Augusta National Golf Club hosted battle royales for members and their guests staying in the Bon Air Hotel. In these spectacles, which were a popular amusement around the country well into the 20th century, white men blindfolded young Black men, put them into a ring and let them fight each other as they placed bets on who would be the last man standing.

“We knew Augusta National was a plantation,” Elam told Andscape. Elam was born in a segregated wing of Augusta University Hospital eight days after the completion of the 1934 Masters. “There was a hierarchy over there and we knew to stay in our place.”

Elam said he was chasing flying squirrels when he heard the gunshots. Roberts, who was driving the cart, shot his gun in the air to scare the young men off the course. The warning was effective.

“I bet it didn’t take us 30 seconds from the time we heard those gunshots to climb over the fence and get off the course,” Williams said to Andscape. “I don’t think they were trying to shoot us. It had to occur to them that we were just fishing and not trying to do damage to the club.”

Augusta National Golf Club co-founder Clifford Roberts jokes with the press while flanked by Black caddies during the 1972 Masters tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in April 1972 in Augusta, Georgia.

Augusta National/Getty Images

That encounter almost 70 years ago is part of a rich oral history of Black golf in Augusta, a history that is deeply intertwined with the Masters tournament. Over card games and golf, a lot of that oral history is preserved daily at the Patch, an 18-hole municipal course in the city that Elam helped desegregate in 1964.

There are dozens of formerly segregated public golf courses around the country like the Patch where African Americans come together around the uniqueness of their golf experience, a history marked by their fight to overturn racist policies and laws which hindered their ability to play the game on an equitable basis with white Americans. Located about five miles from Augusta National Golf Club, the Patch holds these truths but it also contains the history of the Masters, and some of the people who have made it the mecca of golf. Augusta Municipal Golf Course is the club’s official name, but the Patch better reflects its scrappy conditions as a time-honored treasure that was opened in 1928.

Elam and Williams’ generation is slowly dying out. Through in declining health, many of them still drop by the Patch almost every day. Last month, Jariah Beard, who caddied for Fuzzy Zoeller during his victory at the 1979 Masters, died of cancer at the age of 82. A fixture at the Patch and a fine player, Beard was one of those former caddies who could be counted on to provide some perspective about African Americans’ place in Masters history and golf in the city.

Caddies like Beard were celebrities in the Black community during Masters week but since 1983, when the players were first allowed to bring their tour caddies, their traditional presence in the white jumpsuits has all but disappeared during the tournament. These days at Augusta National, where once all the caddies, waiters, chauffeurs and cooks were Black, there is just a smattering of these faces in these roles. Sure, there are now several African American members and African Americans in key business roles in the club, but most of these people are not linked to the Augusta community in the same way as the locals who were the backbone of the club for so many years. “It’s almost sinful with what has happened at Augusta National for Black people,” Elam said.

Even though they were often menial service roles, a job at the Augusta National and the Masters was a coveted opportunity for Black Augusta residents. For years, Elam worked at the tournament during Masters week as waiter and bartender. “During that one week I probably made more than I made all month as a school teacher,” he said.

Several years after sneaking on the property with his friends, Williams had another encounter with Roberts. This time during a break before being shipped out to Okinawa, Japan, while serving in the Army, he served as Roberts’ bartender during the 1960 Masters. In silence, he made Roberts scotch and water and watched him play solitaire. “I was disappointed that he didn’t say a word to me all week,” Williams said. “But as I got older I understood that I couldn’t talk about stocks and bonds with Mr. Roberts.”

What Williams could talk about with the New York stockbroker was Augusta National, what the club represented for many of the men who worked there and who were inspired to play golf because of the popularity of the game in the city. In many ways, the Patch has become a sort of refuge for African Americans who once had a greater presence at Augusta National.

Elam was a part of a group of roughly 50 Black Augusta residents, including Clois Herndon, who led the desegregation of the Patch in 1964. Both retired schoolteachers in Augusta, they were intimately involved in the lawsuit and the orchestration of events that wrestled control of the club from a handful of white golfers.

“I will never forget the first day we played the Patch,” Herndon told Andscape. “We were going out in the morning and a group of old elderly white guys called out, ‘Oh, it ain’t like it used to be. The blackbirds are here.’ ”

Yet, it was a part-time cab driver and Augusta National caddie named Henry Brown who might have had the greatest influence on easing relations between the races at the club. When the Patch was integrated, Brown, who was raised in the Sand Hills district, began playing with a group of Black players. He could play the game both left-handed and right-handed.

“Brown was a phenomenal golfer,” Elam said. “That’s about as succinct as I can put it. He could play.”

On a crowded Saturday morning at the course in the mid-1960s, Brown’s group was at the first tee. There was a crowd of Black and white players standing around the tee as Brown stepped in to hit his shot. Like many Black caddies of his era, Brown was self-taught. With a cross-handed grip, he stepped up and hit his driver about 310 yards down the fairway.

“That was unorthodox,” said a white onlooker after seeing Brown’s drive. “Nobody can hit the ball cross-handed like that.”

Brown overheard him and saw an opportunity to make a point.

“Does anybody have a left-handed club?” he said.

“Yes,” said a white player.

“Loan it to me,” Brown said.

Brown took the driver and lined up on the right side of the tee box and hit his driver left-handed with his cross-handed grip about 320 yards, to the astonishment of the assembled group.

“After Henry’s performance that day everything kind of cleared up between the Black and white players,” Elam said. “Everyone wanted to play with Henry. That really integrated the course. The other times we were playing hoping that we could get around the course without a lot of confusion.”

At the 1975 Masters when he was a 36-year-old veteran caddie with several appearances in the tournament, Brown got Lee Elder’s bag. He was confident that he was the right man to lead Elder, the first African American to play in the Masters, around the course.

“All he has to do is stay cool and relax,” Brown told a reporter as Elder arrived. “I can walk this course backwards. I know every blade of grass on it. I am No. 1.”

With Elder, he was no less confident and assured. During the tournament, Brown, who died in 1992 at the age of 53 after attempting to play the PGA Champions Tour, famously pulled Elder aside and said, “We need to go down in the woods and exchange clothes, so we can play this course the way it’s supposed to be played, because you’re not doing it.”

Brown had won Elder’s confidence.

“I got the finest caddie in Augusta,” Elder said. “Henry Brown could probably beat me. Maybe I should switch over and caddie for him.”

Augusta, Georgia, native Jim Dent watches his tee shot on the 15th hole on the second day of the Administaff Small Business Classic on Oct. 9, 2004, at Augusta Pines Golf Club in Spring, Texas.

Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo

Roberts had hoped that the long-hitting Jim Dent, an Augusta native and former Augusta National caddie, might be the first African American to play in the Masters. Like many African Americans in Augusta, Dent developed his golf game at a nine-hole course at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

In the early 1970s, Dent was one of as many as a dozen African Americans who held playing privileges on the PGA Tour.

“If I win a tournament, that’s my Masters,” he said at the time as controversy arose over the lack of Black players in the tournament. Dent never earned an invitation to his hometown tournament, but he did win 12 times on the PGA Tour Champions.

He now plays four days a week at the Patch, where his son, Jim Dent Jr., is the head golf professional. At 15 years old, Dent Sr. began caddying at Augusta National after first working at the adjoining Augusta Country Club. Like Brown and so many other kids from Sand Hills, Dent knew how to make his way to Augusta National through a fence from the country club. In the Masters, Dent caddied for Bob Goalby and later played with him on the PGA Tour Champions. Dent was back at Augusta National on Wednesday for the club’s announcement that it was making a commitment to supporting an effort to renovate the Patch.

” ‘The Patch,” as the course is fondly known, has built a legendary reputation among locals as a place where the game is introduced and taught and where diversity is celebrated and where friendships are forged,” said Fred Ridley, Augusta National chairman. “All would agree the Patch is a valued community asset.”

At 83, Dent is eligible to play from the red tees with friends at the Patch. “I won’t go up there,” he said, “because if I do, the guys will be crying.”

As a tour player, he never let any obstacles, slights or racism stop his determination to compete with the best players in the world.

“I had my mind on one way and that was to play golf,” he said. “I didn’t care what they said about my race or worry about how many times I showed up at tournaments to check in as a player and they asked me who I was caddying for.”

Dent has some of the conviction and pride of another famous son of Augusta: soul singer James Brown. The Godfather of the Soul never played golf and according to one of his former band members, Robert “Cigarette” Jones, Brown didn’t let members of his band bring their golf clubs on his tour bus. Robert Jones acquired many nicknames growing up — Junebug, Shug, Foots — but “Cigarette” is the one that stuck after he got caught smoking when he was in high school.

Cigarette is what everybody calls him at the Patch, where he goes on the days he’s not on a dialysis machine. In the naming business, he has nothing on one of his Patch acquaintances, Conan Sanders, who was named after Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series. Sanders, however, pronounces it “Co-NAN,” like the character in the film Conan the Barbarian, not “CO-nin,” like the red-haired late-night TV host. Sanders’ friends call him “Flip” because he resembles comedian Flip Wilson. People say that he also looks like Elder, whose nickname on the PGA Tour was Flip.

For 30 years, Robert Jones caddied and chauffeured at the Masters and played music at night. He was a saxophonist in a local band for Brown and singers Otis Redding, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight and many others. Cigarette Jones and the Dynamic Matches was the name of his first group and he played in a band called Sole Dimensions for Brown. “James thought of golf as a white man’s game, but he changed his attitude later in life,” Robert Jones said. In later years, Robert Jones introduced Brown to Jack Stephens, who was a former Augusta National chairman.

In 1952, when he was 12 years old, Robert Jones was introduced to golf at the Patch. He worked up to caddying at Augusta National after paying his dues at the Patch and Augusta Country Club.

“The sweetest thing about the members when I was kid was that if they found out you were a school kid they would find something extra for you,” Robert Jones said.

Honorary starter Lee Elder arrives for the opening ceremony before the start of the first round of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 8, 2021, in Augusta, Georgia.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

These days, he’s there on the card table at the Patch playing Barracuda for small wages and lamenting the phasing out of Black caddies at the Masters in the mid-1980s.

“The whole town was electrified by the tournament,” Robert Jones said. “The tour caddies cut off the hearts of the local caddies. After the Masters, the local caddies would spend a lot of money in the downtime shops. All that money was cut off.”

Herndon doesn’t remember any of the names of the players he caddied for in the Masters, but he does remember his hard-won daily routine during a long career as a schoolteacher and tool and die maker that culminated with a handful of golf holes at the Patch.

“Going to the Patch after work was the most relaxing thing for me,” Herndon said. “I wish the Black guys that go to the Patch realized what we went through to get the right to play the course. They go up there daily like they’ve always been doing it, but it hasn’t always been like that.”

At 88, Herndon doesn’t visit the Patch as much as he once did, but he stays up to speed with Elam, Cigarette and the other guys. He doesn’t like to miss anything. That’s why he’s still attending the Masters after all these years.

“You got to be out there,” he said. “Anything happened, you will always want to say that you were there when it happened.”

Farrell Evans has written about the intersection of race and sports for many publications including Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, GQ, The Oxford American, Bleacher Report, ESPN.com and Andscape, where he writes regularly about golf.