CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA | It’s been 57 years, but the memory still warms James Black as he sits at a small table in the clubhouse at the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course on a chilly winter’s morning.
The year was 1964 and Black, just 22 years old at the time, shot 67 in the first round of the Los Angeles Open at Rancho Park, putting him among the first-round leaders, just three years after the Caucasian-only clause was removed from PGA Tour by-laws.
Black would finish in the top 10 that week, one of two top-10 finishes in five PGA Tour starts that year. He didn’t get rich – Black earned $2,425 in 1964 according to tour records – but he proved he could play at the highest level, something Black players had only recently been given the opportunity to do.
“I was so happy to play in a PGA tournament. I didn’t feel no pressure,” says Black, who is credited with 11 career starts on the PGA Tour.
Sifford, Ted Rhodes, Bill Spiller and others were at the forefront of the effort to integrate professional golf at the highest level and while Black was younger, he faced the same prejudices and challenges as he tried to make a career out of tournament golf.
All these years later, Black reflects on his personal story and if there is a thread of bitterness, it doesn’t show as he sits near the first tee of a course named for the man many consider the Jackie Robinson of golf.
“I’m satisfied with what I went through,” Black says. “A lot happened. Not just golf. We were integrating hotels, restaurants, things like that.
“I remember when you couldn’t get gas at night. You had to learn to travel, how to travel.
“It wasn’t hard playing golf. It was tough getting into golf tournaments. You wanted to play. And you couldn’t play.”
“(Sam Snead) was a good man. I learned a lot from him about playing golf. He told me how I had to concentrate, visualize. He said, ‘You’ve got to see it.’ ” – James Black
Black, 79, learned to play at this course, back when it was called Revolution Golf Course, long before it had overseeded fairways in the winter and a First Tee facility located adjacent to the clubhouse. He shot 59 here decades ago, winning a nice bit of pocket money in the process.
Like Sifford, Black grew up caddying around Charlotte, meeting some of the city’s top players along the way. He eventually began playing with them and learning from them. Clayton Heafner, a PGA Tour star at the time, let Black hit practice balls from the first tee at the course he owned (which didn’t have a range). Black also shagged balls for Heafner and Jimmy Demaret there, joining them in money games.
“(Heafner would) tell me, ‘you have a darn good set of hands and a great pair of feet,’ ” Black says.
“He explained to me that golf was a hand-and-feet game, the only two touching parts. Know where your hands are from the beginning to the end of the golf swing.”
Black played with and against the best players in the game, rarely on the PGA Tour but in matches. He remembers going to tiny Sanford, North Carolina, to play a match against Sam Snead, the challenge having been arranged by the governor of North Carolina at the time.
Snead could be difficult and was not the most culturally enlightened golfer but Black got along with him.
“He was a good man. I learned a lot from him about playing golf,” Black says. “He told me how I had to concentrate, visualize. He said, ‘You’ve got to see it.’ ”
Black was good enough to win tournaments on the United Golf Association tour, the primary tour for Black players for decades. That’s where he met Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, who played in some UGA events, and he took his game on the road, wherever it led him.
That’s how Black found himself in Los Angeles in 1964. He had gone to New York where he won enough money to get himself to the west coast with two other golfers. They drove out there, trying to make ends meet playing wherever they could find a game or a tournament that allowed them. They shared a furnished apartment but that, and their golf clubs, was about all they had.
To get into the L.A. Open, Black drove about 50 miles to a qualifier in Yorba Linda, California, where he earned one of the two spots.
When he got to Rancho Park for the tour event, he found out it would cost him $10 to enter. Black didn’t have $10.
“I couldn’t get $10 from nobody,” Black says. “I went back to the tee box where George Walsh (another pro) was. I never could forget it. I said, ‘I can’t find any money.’ He said, ‘I’m going to give it to you and one day you can tell my children that I helped somebody.’ ”
Late that Thursday afternoon as the sun was going down, Black remembers making a three on his 18th hole (it was No. 9 at the time) to shoot 67. Three years earlier, Arnold Palmer had made a 12 on the same hole and there is a plaque on the tee commemorating Arnie’s ignominious achievement.
“Arnold Palmer made a 12. I made three on it. I remember that,” Black says, chuckling at the memory.
Black was a Palmer fan, admiring his aggressive style and his nerve. That’s the kind of player Black tried to be. Palmer, Black recalls, appreciated what he was up against.
“Palmer would say, ‘Take it, things will work its way out. Just stay focused. You’re here, you don’t want to get run off so follow the rules,’” Black says.
“He talks about the way he had to sneak on courses just to play and how they didn’t have the equipment they needed. He and Mr. Charlie fought it and dealt with it. It wasn’t easy.” – James Boulware
As a player, Black never quite made it the way Sifford or Jim Dent or Lee Elder did on the PGA Tour. But he was a part of the change that came to professional golf, an evolution that continues today.
James Boulware, the general manager at Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course, sees Black most days. A couple of years ago, they played a few holes together and Boulware could still see the swing that made Black one of the best of his generation.
“I love him to death,” Boulware says. “He talks about the way he had to sneak on courses just to play and how they didn’t have the equipment they needed. He and Mr. Charlie fought it and dealt with it. It wasn’t easy.
“I thank him all the time for what he did so we can do what we do now.”
Black still offers tips to players who ask for them, helping youngsters from time to time. He’s been talking with a young player who can hit it a mile but hasn’t grasped the nuances of the game.
“I say there are no pars, no birdies, no eagles, no bogeys. You go to the first hole, if you make four, the next shot is five then six, seven, eight, nine, 10, all the way through,” Black says.
“That’s how you can shoot a number. Gary Player told me that.”
Most of the guys Black played golf with and against are gone now. It’s fair to assume that most of the people who come through the golf shop at the Sifford course have no idea that the man sitting at the table watching television or hanging around outside watching people chip and putt has a small part in the history of the game.
Black still likes coming to the golf course.
“It’s a lifetime game,” he says. “I don’t know nothing else.”
Photos: Ron Green Jr., Global Golf Post
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
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