A scene at Augusta National in 1980 illustrates how difficult it was for golf to integrate the profession in the United States. Television, press and players gathered to watch Tiger Woods record the first round of a U.S. Open featuring six different men of color.
Still, there was a suspicion that a mixed-race pair of professionals could one day become the first Black team to break through to the pinnacle of the sport’s success.
At the time, there were “all-black” teams and pairs that included Caucasian players as a matter of procedure, but no African-American team in professional golf. At the recent Masters Tournament, a group of young African-American golfers, who often wish they could have joined Woods’s first team, gathered for a banquet where Woods’s father, Earl, received a career achievement award from the Four Seasons Club.
It is little known, however, that there was another player who attempted to make a “positive impact” on the sport in 1982. By then, Woods had already won multiple major titles and the prestigious European Order of Merit.
Davis Love III, a small, quiet man in a big shoes, once tried to be a teammate on the Texas Open golf team but was routinely passed over for just the other team members.
How does that happen?
Love had the gift of being able to make adjustments with his swing. “He was certainly one of the better all-around players,” Tommy Armour III said. Love was willing to be a team leader and even gave his best player a brief lesson, but such comments and in-game communication left potential opponents “anticipating” that Love and his players would be too far behind, said Jason Gore, an NBA referee who played on Love’s team.
In 1980, though, Love was approached by a collegiate team that wanted him to help train them. He accepted but a few days before the start of the school year, Love was called into the office of Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne.
Love was shown two exhibits featuring photographs of an African-American golfer and two Major Leaguers. “He was like, ‘why you bothered to meet with us?’” Love said. “We were told we weren’t invited.”
Soon after, Love turned pro. He won that year, but ultimately missed playing in the inaugural year of the Masters with back problems. He did not compete again until 1986, the year Woods won his first major title. Love won the following year.
It was hardly a unanimous decision that Woods’s first team would break down racial barriers. At the time, black golfers – among them Ben Crenshaw and Curtis Strange – were trying to create an all-black team, but they found themselves outranked, no-shows or ignored by Augusta National.
Soon after, Major League Baseball had rejected a proposal to hire major-league players to help with new uniforms and new rules. Ultimately, though, in July 1988, the Major League Baseball Players Association worked out a compromise with the players union and owners to make African-American player interviews the first question on prospective employees’ physicals. “It was something we knew was a long shot,” Jimmie Foxx told the New York Times. “But I wish baseball had done it a long time ago.”
By then, however, golf was already on a roll of finding its true identity. In 1991, Payne and Love founded the Champions Tour, with Phil Mickelson as its first champion. Now, in 2016, 21 African-American men hold professional victories, a figure that is 24 percent of the total number of professional wins earned by the group.
Love never competed in the Masters. Woods wasn’t even born yet. But by then, there were players in the Masters and beyond who could draw similarities between the two stories. More than anyone, Woods helped pave the way for golf’s future to include golfers of all races.