Golf: Tiger's debt to Spiller

Lauren St John watches golfing partners in time
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF THEY were not contending in the US PGA Championship, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh would not be men with much in common.

Where Tiger is a natural star, the owner of an effortless gift, a 100- watt smile and $100m in sponsorship, Singh has beaten every dime out of the turf of a thousand practice fairways. Tiger is family-orientated and savvy, the symbol of all that is good about the American dream. Singh is a grinder and a loner, and his face bears the cynicism of his struggle.

In the elitist world of professional golf, however, the race sets them apart. On the PGA Tour in America, they are not just golfers. They are black golfers united by the game's silent history, the first men of colour to share the leader board of a major.

The ease with which Woods has ushered in golf's new era has a bit to do with talent and a lot to do with Bill Spiller. Spiller was a black crusader and he suffered accordingly. Decades after he was barred entry to tournaments, he used to wake up screaming the names of the people who had refused to allow him to compete. In the dead of night, he would pick up a gun and threaten revenge. Finally his wife, fearing he might mistake her for a golf official, had him institutionalised.

Spiller worked for 15 years to abolish the PGA Tour's Caucasian-only rule. He was good enough to tie Hogan in the first round of one LA Open, but the PGA refused to let him play in the other events. A proud man, whose degree had brought him only doughnut-frying and caddying jobs, he launched a discrimination suit against the PGA. He was tricked into dropping the case. An escape clause allowed the PGA to substitute the word Open with Invitational and continue discriminating as before.

It was 1961 before the Caucasian rule was repealed. After Spiller came Charlie Sifford the elder, the first black man to play in the Masters, Calvin Peete, Ted Rhodes and Jim Thorpe. Discrimination continued covertly until the 1990 US PGA at Shoal Creek, when the club's founder said memorably: "We don't discriminate in any area but blacks." When sponsors subsequently pulled out in droves, the Tour introduced a rule that required all clubs hosting PGA events to have integrated memberships.

In April last year, Woods delivered a stinging blow to that bastion of white male privilege, Augusta National, when he won the Masters by 12 strokes. The next generation will reap the benefits. Until then, though, America's best-known black golfers remain Tiger, Michael Jordan, OJ Simpson, Earl Woods (Tiger's father) and Singh.

For all his campaigning, it was Spiller's fate never to be allowed to join the Tour. He died in 1988, aged 75, in the house he bought with $7,000 he won in a golf match against the boxer Joe Louis. "My father was a very angry man, possibly the angriest man I have ever met," Bill Spiller Jnr told the Los Angeles Times. "Two chips. Both shoulders. This was his burning cross. He carried it with him to his grave."