“You’ve probably never heard of Cliff Harrington. He was Black and one of the most promising golfers I ever saw, of any race.” That assessment came from Lee Elder in a 2019 Golf Digest interview. “You’ve heard of me, Calvin Peete, Charlie Sifford, Teddy Rhodes, James Black and other Black players. But Cliff could have been right there with us, maybe even better.”
Elder should know. He won four times on the PGA Tour and eight times on the Champions Tour. In 1975, he was the first Black golfer to play in the Masters Tournament and on April 8, Elder will join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as an honorary starter at the 85th Masters. He also played against Harrington on the United Golf Association tour, the circuit that afforded Black golfers a competitive outlet before the PGA Tour lifted its Caucasian-only clause in 1961.
“You would not believe what a great player he was,” Elder, 86, said in a recent interview, even recalling that every shot Harrington hit moved from left to right. However, Harrington is so obscure that there is no available photographic or video evidence that he ever played – only a single photo of a poised, handsome crew-cut man in neat, casual attire. Yet, the available record tells a story, as compelling as it is poignant, of a man whose jaw-dropping heroism deserved recognition and admiration today.
Clifton William Harrington was born on Feb. 21, 1931. When asked by a reporter how long he had played golf, he answered, “all my life,” possible because he grew up near the golf mecca of Pinehurst, North Carolina. While Arnold Palmer was at Wake Forest, Harrington carried his bag at Pinehurst Country Club. He also caddied for Gene Sarazen, Ed Furgol and Frank Stranahan, among others. Studying their swings, he became an accomplished golfer himself, winning several caddie tournaments.
During the Korean War, Harrington was drafted and trained as an Army paratrooper. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he had time to enter golf tournaments and did so as a professional. The Army gave Harrington more opportunities to play against top White golfers than were available in the civilian world, a result of President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order desegregating the military, which carried over into its sports programs. Harrington competed against many golfers who were drafted into the military and who later excelled on the PGA tour.
In 1953, Harrington placed eighth in the All-Army tournament at Pebble Beach, won by Tom Nieporte, who would win the 1967 Bob Hope Desert Classic and two other tour events. In second place was 1951 U.S. Amateur champion Billy Maxwell, who went on to win seven PGA tournaments (according to Elder, Maxwell went out of his way to make him feel welcome when he joined the tour in the 1960s). In 1954, Harrington finished third in the All-Army behind Maxwell and future multiple PGA Tour winner Dan Sikes. He also shot a record 64 at the Fort Bragg golf course.
In 1957, Harrington tied for third in the All-Army, won by Mason Rudolph, who would win five PGA Tour events. And finally, in 1961, then-Sgt. Harrington broke through to win the All-Army, shooting 5-under-par 283 over 72 holes, in the process beating future U.S. Open winners Orville Moody and Lou Graham.
Unlike other athletes and entertainers serving in the military, Harrington was a soldier, first and foremost. By 1961, when he had been reassigned to Fort Campbell in Kentucky, Harrington had accumulated more than 150 jumps as a paratrooper. “He didn’t have the opportunity to leave his post and pursue the things we were able to do,” says Elder, who likewise served in the Army. At Fort Campbell, Harrington also was the pro at the Cole Park Golf Course on base, where he gave lessons to all, White or Black. “Take an easy swing,” he advised in a 1960 interview in The Miami News. “You’ll find you get better results and you’ll hit the ball just as far, maybe farther.”
Harrington continued to voluntarily serve his country in a military that, unlike the PGA Tour, did not judge him by the color of his skin.
With PGA tournaments off-limits, Harrington played in UGA events when he could work them in. At the 1958 Negro National Open, he placed eighth behind winner Howard Wheeler (Elder and Charlie Sifford also finished ahead of him), earning $40. He won the 1959 North South tournament in Miami Springs, Florida, a major UGA event.
The U.S. Open was one of the few non-service events in which he could compete with White players. However, Harrington was not spared indignity on account of his race. In 1959, he applied to play in local qualifying in Memphis and Louisville but was denied entry because the host clubs did not allow for integrated play. He was welcomed at the Country Club of Indianapolis but failed to advance. In 1960, he made it out of local qualifying in Indianapolis, along with Rudolph and future PGA Tour winner Joe Campbell – with whom he became friends – but failed to advance at sectional qualifying.
But in 1961, Harrington realized his dream of playing in his national Open. At the Chicago sectional, he finished one stroke behind Al Geiberger, who would win the 1966 PGA Championship and other events. At Oakland Hills outside of Detroit, he shot 79 in the first round in brutal conditions in which only one player broke par. He improved the following day with a 72 but missed the cut by two strokes in the championship won by Gene Littler, who played with Elder in the first round of the 1975 Masters and, according to Elder, was a calming presence on what he expected to be a difficult day.
With the PGA Tour now open to Black golfers, Harrington toyed with the idea of playing professionally full time. Elder says Harrington “liked playing for money” with him and Black golf pioneer Ted Rhodes. During those matches, Elder said the topic of leaving the Army to become a full-time professional came up. “He was torn between the service and playing professionally,” Elder said. Undoubtedly, Harrington was reluctant to lose the benefits he had earned with many years of military service.
“He was a hard worker,” Elder said. “If he couldn’t get a game, he would practice. He had the determination to become a top-notch golfer.”
Harrington continued to play professionally when he could, in UGA tournaments and some non-PGA events. In 1961 Harrington won the Irvin Cobb tournament in Paducah, Kentucky. If he had any resentment against the Commonwealth of Kentucky for being snubbed two years earlier in Louisville, he did not show it.
“I’m proud to have played in such a fine tournament and in the city of Paducah and before such a fine group of citizens,” he said upon receiving the trophy and the $300 winner’s check. He won the same event in 1964. By all accounts, Harrington was quiet and modest and, according to Elder, very private.
In September 1964, at the Oak Ridge Invitational in Tennessee, a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole curled out that would have won the tournament and $1,000. “I beat him in a playoff,” recalls Joe Campbell, now 85, who won three tour events. Campbell was asked if Harrington could have succeeded on the PGA Tour. “Yes,” he answered without hesitation.
In May 1965, Harrington played with his friend Campbell at the Tennessee Open, becoming the first Black golfer to play in that event. That summer, he again gave serious thought about retiring from the military and trying the pro tour but decided to put in a couple of more years. In June, he finished third at the Lawrenceville Open in Indiana, his last tournament.
By then, Americans began to read about a war in an Asian country they never had reason to even think about. On July 10, 1965, Staff Sgt. Harrington was deployed to South Vietnam with the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade, part of 50,000 American troops sent by President Lyndon Johnson.
The first major battle of the Vietnam War was “Operation Hump” at Bien Hoa Province, starting Nov. 5, 1965. The objective was to confront Viet Cong forces who had taken up positions in the area. There was intense fighting. On Nov. 8, Harrington died of wounds suffered from mortar fire, one of 49 paratroopers to perish. Harrington was 34. The battle was memorialized in the 2006 song “8th of November” by country duo Big & Rich.
In his 14-year career in the Army, Harrington was the equal of numerous golfers who went on to successful careers on the PGA Tour. Because of his race, for most of his time in the Army – and unlike contemporary veterans such as Maxwell, Rudolph, Graham, Moody, Nieporte and Sikes – Harrington did not have the option of completing his stint and testing his skill on the PGA Tour. Instead, Harrington continued to voluntarily serve his country in a military that, unlike the PGA Tour, did not judge him by the color of his skin.
Staff Sgt. Harrington left behind his widow, Frankie, who survived him by 50 years before her death in 2015. They had no children. Among his posthumously awarded medals was the Bronze Star. His remains are interred at Resthaven Memorial Gardens in Clarksville, Tennessee.
His name will forever be enshrined on panel 03E, line 032 of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
“He was a very fine gentleman,” Elder concluded, “and I’m proud to have known him.”
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