The day Joe Louis became the first black golfer to play a PGA-sponsored tourney
By taking his fight to the press, Louis beat the PGA rule that limited tournament participation to golfers of ‘the Caucasian race’
If Joe Louis was going to be denied entry into the $10,000 San Diego Open by the Professional Golfers Association and PGA president Horton Smith, he was going to first deliver several devastating, public body blows.
“I want people to know what the PGA is,” Louis told The New York Times on Jan. 14, 1952. “We’ve got another Hitler to get by.”
“This is the last major sport in America in which Negroes are barred,” Louis told the Los Angeles Sentinel.
“It’s about time that it is brought into the open,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
There were questions about whether the former heavyweight boxing champion and two other black golfers, Bill Spiller and Eural Clark, could play because of the PGA’s bylaws against non-white players in tournaments co-sponsored by the organization.
Louis’ humiliation tactic worked, and he became the first black golfer to compete in a PGA-sanctioned event on Jan. 17, 1952. Louis shot an opening-round 76, which was 4 over par. He missed the cut with a 158 after 36 holes.
Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in major league baseball, and several movie stars sent Louis messages of support in his fight for inclusion into the San Diego Open.
But while Louis was allowed to compete, Spiller was denied entry because, as Smith and tournament supervisor Frank Caywood explained, “he is not a member of the PGA, nor on the PGA tournament player list.”
Spiller said after the first round that he was “disappointed in Louis” for playing. The pair disagreed on strategy, and Spiller was upset because he felt the process of getting other black people in the pros would move faster if Louis sat out. Louis’ secretary argued that Louis’ decision to play was the right move to advance the black cause.
Louis wasn’t satisfied with only his inclusion, and he used his entry as a tool to continue the fight for others. The pressure then shifted to changing the organization’s bylaws and rules preventing black golfers from participating. Smith said he hoped that the seven-man committee would revise the rule book when the group met later that year. Smith stated that a draft for an “approved entry” clause would eliminate the hurdle preventing golfers of color from playing until that November meeting.
“I’d like the approved entry plan until something better,” Louis told The Washington Post. “There is a better way, but not right now.”
Chevrolet Dealers of San Diego County, sponsors of the tournament, invited Louis to compete. The money raised, which was anticipated to be about $2,000, would be given to organizations that helped disabled children.
Because Louis received the sponsors’ invite, the belief was that he was exempt from the PGA’s bylaws. The sponsors were then informed of the PGA’s rules excluding golfers of color when Louis, Spiller and Clark arrived on Jan. 13.
PGA secretary Harry Moffitt said Louis was barred from the Open because he had failed to sign a required players’ agreement. Spiller and Ted Rhodes, another professional black golfer, blew a hole through that argument when they informed Louis that they had applied for that agreement three years ago and were still being told the matter was under consideration.
On Jan. 15, Louis was informed that the PGA had approved him as one of 10 invited amateurs allowed to the local sponsors. Amateurs were exempt from qualification.
“Joe Louis, as a two-handicap amateur golfer, was invited to play in the San Diego Open by the sponsors and representatives of the San Diego Country Club, where the event will be staged,” Smith told the Atlanta Daily World. “His invitation is concurred by the PGA tournament committee and he will be welcome to play.”
Clark didn’t make the cut in the pre-tournament competition. But when it came to Spiller, who qualified for the event with scores of 77 and 75, Smith said, “We have rules and we don’t make them just to be tough but to control play in the tournament. Section one of article 3 of our bylaws state:
Any professional golfer of the Caucasian race over 18 years of age and residing in North or South America is eligible to become a PGA member.
“In view of that section of our rules, Spiller obviously could not become a member, and therefore, under PGA rules cannot play in the San Diego Open.”
Since Louis was an amateur, he fell outside of PGA jurisdiction. The United States Golf Association permits any amateur to enter an open tournament as long as he is invited by the sponsoring organization and his entry is approved by the PGA.
Ted Kroll ultimately won the tournament and the $2,000 prize.
Spiller, Clark and Rhodes would join Louis in the next PGA-sponsored event, the Phoenix Open, the following week as a result of Louis breaking the color barrier. Spiller and Louis became good friends, and Louis helped sponsor Spiller when he needed funds to play.