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African-Americans Strive to Bring Equality to Golf - 2003-04-09

World number-one golfer Tiger Woods of the United States is aiming for an unprecedented third straight title at The Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia, being played Thursday through Sunday. He was the first player of color to win the prestigious Grand Slam tournament and captured the coveted green jacket in 1997, 2001, and 2002.

For years golf was viewed in the United States as a sport played primarily by wealthy white Americans, but during the past several decades that has changed, thanks in large part to the efforts and achievements of some African Americans.

Charlie Sifford, George Simkins and Tiger Woods. Different generations and skill levels, but connected by their love of golf and a determination to get more African Americans involved.

Tiger Woods, 23, is the number-one golfer in the world. He has become the dominant player on the professional tour and has won 34 titles since 1996. His success, popularity, and competitive spirit have attracted thousands of young African Americans to take up the game. He has helped raise more than half a million dollars to fund junior golf programs for inner city minority youngsters.

Tiger Woods says he would not be where he is today without sacrifices from other African Americans. In the days of segregation in the United States, golf was a sport virtually off limits to blacks. They were barred from most publicly-owned golf courses. Instead they were forced to play on a few poorly maintained "black only" courses. That did not stop people like George Simkins. He was a recreational golfer and a long-time civil rights activist in Greensboro, North Carolina. He tells the story about playing golf and fighting to get courses in the city integrated.

"[When] I started playing golf, they had a little segregated course for us called Nocho Park Golf Course here in Greensboro, just for the blacks," Mr. Simkins said. "They [the city] would fix it up. There were weeds everywhere. They had another course for the whites called Gillespie Park Golf Course.

On December 7, 1955, six of us went out on the Gillespie Park Golf Course to play golf and we were arrested and given active jail terms for trespassing," he continued. " So I told him, no, we were going to take this case all the way to the Supreme Court, because anybody who pays taxes should be able to enjoy the recreational facilities provided by the city." In October 1959, the justices in Washington heard the case. They later ruled that all city-owned recreational facilities around the country must be integrated and open to Blacks.

Golfer Charlie Sifford took advantage of integrated golf courses and began to compete with white golfers. In fact he was the first black golfer to join the Professional Golfer Association (PGA) tour. Up until 1962, only white golfers were allowed to play on the PGA tour. He faced a great deal of discrimination.

"It really was tough," Sifford said. "It had to be tough for a black man out playing, out in a white man's golf world, the only guy playing on the PGA tour. "

Sifford, with his signature cigar, overcame the racism and even the death threats he faced on the tour.

"If I did not love it, I would not have put my life on the line for it," he admitted. "You have to be intelligent and you just cannot go out there and hit people up side the head because they say something to you wrong. You have to be willing enough to accept these things."

Thirty-six years ago Sifford made history by becoming the first black golfer to win a PGA tournament event. Two years later he won the Los Angeles Open.

Nearly five decades after the North Carolina golfers were arrested for playing on this segregated course, whites and blacks now play together. Thanks to the efforts of George Simkins, Charlie Sifford and Tiger Woods.