REMEMBERING THE OLD UGA TOUR
Back in the day — way before Tiger and Earl — the nation’s best black golfers weren’t allowed to play on the PGA Tour and they certainly didn’t spend any time pondering endorsements. Theirs was the United Golf Association Tour, known affectionately in those days as the “Chittlin’ Circuit,” and for years it was the best friend a black golfer ever had.
It was the home of Charlie Sifford and Teddy Rhodes. Howard Wheeler and Zeke Hartsfield. Pete Brown and Lee Elder. And it was unique because for a long time, it was the only organization that would routinely give black golfers a place to compete. From Detroit to Pittsburgh, to Philadelphia to D.C., to New York to Boston, up and down the highway they’d go, chasing a dream and that little white ball.
“It launched my career. Without the UGA, I never would have played competitive golf,” says Pete Brown, a four-time winner of the UGA’s National Negro Open and a two-time winner on the PGA Tour.
“It meant a lot to us because it was a place where we could play and win some money,” says Sifford, who won six Negro Opens and was the first black golfer to win a major PGA tournament — the 1967 Hartford Open. “It was one of the greatest organizations in the world because it gave a lot of people a chance to play golf who didn’t have any where else to play.”
Founded in 1926 by Massachusetts golf enthusiast Robert Hawkins, the UGA’s heyday, arguably, was from 1946-61, when Rhodes and then Sifford were in their prime, when heavyweight champ Joe Louis was in love with the game, and when the PGA Tour hadn’t yet been forced to open its tournaments to blacks. Forced to play on whatever hardscrabble golf course that would have them, the black legends of golf traveled from city to city, from early spring to late summer, enjoying each other’s company almost as much as they did the golf.
“We had a good time. It was no dog-eat-dog thing,” says Brown, now 62 and the golf pro at Madden Golf Course in Dayton, Ohio. “Sometimes a few of us would even decide before the tournament that if any of us won, we’d share the money. We’d travel all over the place to try and win that $500.”
While on the road, they’d stay with whomever would put them up. What little money they had was used to pay the $25-$50 entrance fee, then gas and food. “We were awful thin back then,” says Sifford, “because we didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t eat too much food.” What they did do was play a lot of golf in the daytime and then go dancing or listen to jazz at night. Life was good and loads of fun.
Like Sifford, Rhodes and innumerable other golfers before them, Brown got hooked on the sport by caddying as a youngster. He was 18 and working at a municipal golf course in Jackson, Mississippi,