when he first heard of the UGA in 1954. Back then, in the deep, deep South, a black man either snuck onto one of the well-manicured whites-only courses to try and play a few holes undetected or waited patiently for those rare occasions when caddies were given the green light to play. Imagine then Brown’s excitement when he learned that there was a course in nearby New Orleans where on Mondays and Fridays blacks could golf to their hearts’ delight. It was while in New Orleans that Brown heard about the UGA’s Lone Star Open, scheduled for Houston later that summer. He hitched a ride to Texas for the event, where he beat Sifford handily and finished second to Spiller. His life was never quite the same afterwards. “Charlie and Bill took quite an interest in me, I guess because they saw a potential in me,” Brown says. “I didn’t have any experience, but I sure could hit the ball long.”
Sifford and Spiller were so impressed by Brown’s game and demeanor, that before they departed for the next UGA stop in Dallas, they asked if Brown would be interested in playing the Negro Open in a couple of weeks. He said yes. They swung through Jackson on their way north, and the rest is history. “After that I always knew where the UGA tournaments were being played,” says Brown, who eventually moved to Detroit to be closer to the action.
Without a doubt, the annual Negro Open was the most popular of the UGA events. First prize could be as much as $1,000 and the bragging rights were huge.
“That was our Masters,” says Sifford. “You’d have people come in from Florida, California, Texas, you name it.”
“We used to call it a picnic because they had way too many golfers, says Joe Roach, a three-time amateur division champ of the Negro Open who now lives in Miami.
You never knew when you were going to play,” recalls Brown. “You’d get in nine holes and then you might have to wait three hours to play the next nine. They’d sometimes move the women and juniors to another course, but most of the time they tried to work in those 200 to 300 people.”
The irony of it all was that during an era in which blacks were barred from playing on most courses, UGA events were open to and frequently contested by golfers of any race, even whites. “It was a black organization, but we never discriminated against anybody,” says Roach. “We had a lot of white people who played in our events. We wouldn’t have cared if Sam Snead or Ben Hogan came out to play.”
One reason the Negro Open was such an attraction was that Joe Louis often played in the amateur division. He had hired Teddy Rhodes as his personal golf instructor, and more than a dollar or two exchanged hands when those two hit the course. Sifford, in turn, was hired by Billy Eckstine, the great singer and band leader,