Fifty-eight years ago in the Miami area: America’s first African-American Masters player

Written by Staff Writer

Paddles out for a two-day affair, the 58th Ryder Cup takes place this weekend, with the United States looking to defend the team trophy they won at Hazeltine last year, after the home team’s successful bid to snare the event from Europe last year.

But at the 1964 Matchplay Championship, just weeks prior to the event, two Black golfers entered the fray.

Leading golfers were paying attention to the U.S. trials and it’s thought that was the first time the country was addressing African-Americans as “colored,” rather than “African-Americans” in golf.

After earning a local amateur crown at the prestigious West Palm Beach tournament in October, boxing promoter Jackie Robinson introduced me to Chris Jackson, a standout amateur. And with the respect and admiration of their peers he inspired me to learn about the sport.

He then became the first African-American member to be granted full membership to the Florida club. The good work carried over into the Masters Tournament where I stood next to him as he watched me train and compete.

I chose to go golfing at the Callaway Fitness Golf Club on Harbour Island, but at times Chris did come across to the course as “the man in the house.”

United States vs Europe: The Ryder Cup on TV

Nick Faldo was champion that year and joined the rest of the field in an enraptured and appreciative reception by Chris’s family. I enjoyed their company and their friendship; without Chris and his wife Joan, I would not have become what I am today.

On March 4, 1965, my “1” card had been presented to me and it was time to attempt to qualify for the Masters. I had no plans to advance in the Florida Amateur Championship on March 4th when I saw the email notification, but I prepared as if it were a dream come true.

My next tee time was the next morning, March 5th, 1965.

That morning I went to watch the scoring board at the Savannah Country Club’s West Course with a good buddy, Bert Parker. We both putted on a green expecting that I would be matched on the next tee with the Jacksons.

My buddy put his toe in the water and said: “Incoming Chris. You got it, brother.” I thought of shaking his hand and saying “Thanks, Bert.” I had never played his brothers but that day my spirits were high.

The first shot was a difficult chop to six feet. So I withdrew and gave Bert three shots, with the third shot a 5-wood from the greenside bunker with an uphill 12-foot putt. And he made the putt. After Bert released me, he said: “Chris, you are not going to lose this competition. I have no doubt about it.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. He responded, “I was going to write a letter to Florida Golf Club and ask that you be designated as captain of the team and that you win the Masters.”

Once again, when I heard Bert’s strong words, I said, “Thank you, Bert, for believing in me.”

Another four members of the golf club in the Augusta area, including the father of the former world number one Ernie Els, also praised me and asked that I be appointed to the team.

I wanted to win to guarantee myself full membership for the Masters, but with Bert’s bold words, which were printed in the Augusta Chronicle, I knew I had the support of the community.

I had already qualified for the Masters Amateur and so my focus was focused on the final round.

As the front-runners had fallen out, my strategy was to attack, but unfortunately one of my drives hit a tree and then rolled down a 20-foot slope, forcing me to stop at the point where the ball had come to rest, which left me 30 feet from the hole. The goal was to execute and make a good putt for the victory.

My putt rolled past the hole, bounced and rose slowly as if waiting for a prince, but was delivered into the net and then fell short. When I looked down, I saw Bert had already cast his own support.

“Well played, Chris,” he said. “You did the best you could.”

The lack of a prince came too late, so I asked Bert for the extraordinary honor of calling my wife and giving her the news. Unfortunately, it was the last playoff hole, but he said: “Look, how can you not give this to your brother?”

And I said, “That’s not what I asked Bert. It’s what I decided to do. And now it’s my turn.”

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