Uneven Fairways an elegant portrait of black golfers who never got to play against the best

February 12, 2009

Growing up near Atlanta, I learned to play golf at the Alfred “Tup” Holmes Golf Course in the heart of the city’s black middle class neighborhoods on the southwest side of town. At the tight, 6200-yard track, which was named for the man who had led the efforts in the 1950s to desegregate the city’s public courses, I heard raucous tales of the grizzled veterans of the United Golf Association. This tour, the sport’s Negro Leagues, included a tournament in Atlanta every year at the now-defunct, all-black Lincoln Country Club. UGA stars like Teddy Rhodes, Pete Brown, Bill Spiller, Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder would become as familiar to me as Nicklaus, Palmer and Player.

“Teddy Rhodes was one of the greatest of all time.” I must have heard that a million times from the World War II vets who remembered some of the 150 tournaments Rhodes won on the UGA. “He was better than Hogan, Snead, Palmer and Nicklaus.”

The story of Rhodes and many other black pros is elegantly retold in the new one-hour documentary, Uneven Fairways, which premieres Wednesday on the Golf Channel at 9 p.m. Eastern. Set to a jazz score, narrated by the actor Samuel L. Jackson and written by Pete McDaniel of Golf Digest, Fairways is the most compelling portrait I’ve seen of the black golfers who never got the full opportunity to play against the best in the world because of the PGA’s caucasians-only clause. The voices of these pioneers, who tried to eke out a living on the cow pastures of the UGA, are captured here in a contemplative and revealing way that will make viewers feel like eyewitnesses to golf’s Jim Crow era.

Their aging faces, shot in closeup by the director Dan Levinson, complement the honesty and directness of the interviews, which are supplemented with grainy footage from the 1950s. The cast is star-studded. Charlie Sifford and Jim Thorpe hold court on how tough it was to try to play pro golf without a sponsor. Sifford had to become the crooner Billy Eckstine’s traveling golf coach to raise money to play. Thorpe says he didn’t have a dime to his name when he played the 1981 U.S. Open at Merion, subsisting only on the food provided in the players’ locker room. Calvin Peete says he was inspired by Joe Louis, who evidently didn’t like to pay when he lost a wager on the course. “You had to follow Joe home if you wanted to get paid,” said Alton Duhon, who won the 1982 U.S. Senior Amateur.

Tiger, Arnie and Jack make appearances. Tiger, much as he did after winning the 1997 Masters, thanks the black golf pioneers for paving the way for him. Palmer and Nicklaus laud the efforts of Sifford, but they are conspicuously silent about their own general apathy in the 1960s about efforts to integrate the game.

I truly loved this documentary, but it sorely deserved a second hour to cover black women golfers and the all-black golf courses that popped up across the country as a result of segregation. The Wake Robin Golf Club in Washington, the first black women’s golf association, merits mention in any conversation about golf in America. Althea Gibson, the Jackie Robinson of women’s tennis and golf, is easily as significant to the game as Sifford. There is also room for a sequel, about the barriers that continue to hamper young African-American golfers today.

Still, Fairways, which was 12 years in the making, is a monumental achievement that should be seen by all lovers of the game. It shows us how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.