Breakthrough at Burneyville
Fifty years ago this week, Pete Brown won a PGA TOUR event in a small Oklahoma town. History would never be the same.
Fifty years ago, Margaret Brown was in her home in Los Angeles, recuperating after the birth of her sixth daughter Tracie a few weeks earlier. It was early May and her husband Pete was in a little Oklahoma town that nobody had ever heard of, playing in an opposite-field event that would last just four years on the PGA TOUR schedule before being reduced to small text in the record books.
It was Sunday afternoon and Margaret had no idea how her husband was faring. There was no television nor radio. All she could do was wait.
Finally, the call came from 1,400 miles away. It was Pete. He was in a good mood. He told Margaret that he had won the tournament.
She didn't believe it. "Stop kidding me!" she said, more hopeful than annoyed.
Pete insisted it was true. He had broken through less than a year after getting his TOUR card. He was coming home with the first-place check of $2,700. For a growing family, it was a much-needed income boost.
The two were thrilled. They would have something to celebrate when he returned home.
What was left unsaid during that phone conversation 50 years ago was the significance of the win, the value of which goes way beyond the $2,700 written on the check.
Pete Brown had just made history, becoming the first African-American golfer to win a PGA TOUR-sanctioned event. It was a landmark achievement in the sport. Brown was now a pioneer in the desegregation of golf.
His thoughts, though, were not on milestones or the history books. He just wanted to get home to his cherished Margaret and see how his newborn and their five other daughters were doing.
If you're not familiar with the Waco Turner Open Invitational, don't worry. You aren't alone.
You might assume that it was played in Waco, Texas -- 90 miles south of Dallas -- but you'd be wrong. Actually, it was 90 miles north, just across the Red River in a little Oklahoma border town called Burneyville, the least likeliest town to host a TOUR event.
The tournament was the creation of Waco Turner, a huge golf fan who made his money in the oil fields of Oklahoma and East Texas. Turner was larger than life and certainly eccentric; comparisons to Howard Hughes were not without merit. The golf course he built, Turner's Lodge, had one member -- himself. When showing off the course, he didn't mind driving one of his vintage Cadillacs right up onto a green.
During tournaments, he was a one-man rules official. "He was his own man," Jack Nicklaus recalled in a Sports Illustrated story. "If he wanted a hole to be a par-12, it was a par-12."
If he was in an especially boisterous mood, Turner would hop into his plane and have the pilot buzz the players on the course.
"Waco Turner was kind of a madman," laughed Tommy Aaron, the 1973 Masters champ who played every year in Burneyville.
But he was also a generous man, especially to those players who showed up for his event. He provided housing for players and steak dinners after each round. He would carry around a bag of cash and shell it out for great shots. Birdies, eagles, aces, chip-ins also merited extra pay. The official purse was $20,000, but Aaron thinks the actual cash handed out was closer to $35,000.
The first Waco Turner Open was held in 1961 opposite the Tournament of Champions, giving playing privileges that week to those who had failed to win the year before. Butch Baird, Johnny Pott and Gay Brewer had won the first three Waco Turner Opens; Pete Brown, who didn't get his TOUR card until the summer of 1963, had not been in the field any of those years.
In fact, Brown was lucky to be playing golf. Actually, he was lucky to be alive.
Pete Brown developed a love for the sport during his childhood days while working as a caddie in Mississippi, sneaking onto the course whenever he could. But in 1956 at the age of 19, he became sick, losing control of his muscles. He was living in Detroit at the time and doctors weren't sure of the cause. In the book, "Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf", Brown said he was a low priority in a segregated facility.
"They gave me up for dead," Brown told the book's author, Pete McDaniel. "The doctor told me if I did survive, I'd have to give up golf because I'd be in a wheelchair the rest of my life."
His condition grew worse as he lay in a hospital bed. But he was fortunate to have some celebrity visitors.
Boxing legend Joe Louis, a big golfer, joined Charlie Sifford -- who would soon break golf's color barrier as the first official TOUR pro and eventually become the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame -- one day to check on Brown. But Brown did not recognize them, so Louis left an autographed picture on his bed.
Had it not been for the picture of Louis, Brown may never have been cured.
"The doctor saw the picture and told me I must be an important guy to have Joe as a friend," Brown said in Uneven Lies. "They started treating me better."
The diagnosis was non-paralytic polio.
"I couldn't move any muscles," Brown told the Augusta Chronicle in a 2012 story. "They were all gone. So I practiced using my muscles all day and all night. Finally one day I got my hands to move. I told the nurse and she couldn't believe it. It was torture, to tell you the truth."
After 11 months in bed, Brown went through physical therapy. In 1958, he felt good enough to resume his competitive golf career. Now he set his sights on the PGA TOUR. He moved to Los Angeles to gain experience and by July 1963, he received his card, having acquired two signatures from Class A PGA pros after passing a playability test.
He was now 10 months away from making history.
When he woke up in Burneyville on the morning of May 3, 1964, Pete Brown was not the only African-American in contention after 54 holes of the Waco Turner Open. Joining him in a tie for second was Sifford, and both were chasing Dudley Wysong, the third-round leader who was one stroke ahead.
The civil rights movement during that time was not lost on the tournament host. Waco Turner, for all his eccentricities, was going to give every player in his event a fair shot of winning, and would make sure there would be no incidents of hostility toward Brown or Sifford.
According to the Augusta Chronicle, Turner wore two .45 revolvers on his belt. Few people doubted he would use them if needed. Although fan attendance was sparse at the event's remote location, those who did would not cause a disturbance.
"People were real good," Brown told the Chronicle. "Waco Turner owned the course and he told me if anybody gave him trouble to let him know."
So the focus stayed on golf. Wysong could not maintain his lead; Sifford also failed to break par.
Brown took a conservative, smart approach. After 17 holes, he looked at the leaderboard for the first time all day. He did a double-take -- he was one shot ahead of Dan Sikes, who had just won his first TOUR event less than two months earlier at Doral and was already finished after shooting 67, the low round of the day.
"I knew if I parred 18, victory was mine," Brown told author McDaniel.
The 18th was an unusual finishing hole, a 230-yard par 3. Brown pulled his 2-iron into the rough. He had to get up-and-down to avoid a playoff with Sikes.
His flop shot rolled to within 3 feet of the pin. His short putt sealed his par and his place in history.
Not that anybody was really aware of it -- or even acknowledged it -- at the time. Aaron, who finished tied for third in a group that also included Miller Barber, didn't recall any discussion of it.
"I don't think the players knew about it," he said.
Brown, a gentle soul and family man, only thought about the significance of his win later that night -- and mostly in competitive terms.
"It hit me that night, and I didn't know how to handle it," Brown said in McDaniel's book. "I started thinking about all the opportunities it would open up for me, like the Tournament of Champions."
Margaret was proud of her husband, mostly because what the victory meant in terms of how he overcame his health struggles, his determination to get himself up off the hospital bed and find a way to the winner's circle.
"I understood what it meant," she recalled this week. "Not just being the first to win but just proud of him winning. I always believed in him."
Pete Brown is 79 now, and not doing well these days. He and Margaret live in Evans, Ga., in a house owned by Jim Dent, one of the African-American golf stars who followed the path blazed by Brown and Sifford and others.
A recent story in Sports Illustrated detailed how the Browns landed in Georgia. For many years, Pete and Margaret lived in Los Angeles but lost their home to a fire in 1979. Their next stop was Dayton, Ohio, where Pete had worked as a club pro. But family tragedies -- two daughters died of cancer -- and Pete's medical hardships proved challenging. Both his heart and his body were broken. He needed help.
When Dent learned what was happening with Pete and Margaret, he invited them to move to Georgia. The SI story noted that the moving costs came to $6,000. Tiger Woods, having heard of Brown's plight, sent a check to help defray the costs.
Dent was glad to help.
"You wouldn't find a better man that Pete in the day," Dent told SI. "To me, to give something back to somebody, it makes me feel good."
He's not the only one with only good things to say about Pete Brown.
Detroit native Calvin Peete was 20 and had yet to take up golf after a childhood incident in which he fell from a cherry tree and broke his elbow in three places. Like Brown, he faced the challenge of overcoming a physical hardship. After deciding to give golf a try, Peete was approached by Brown, who became one of his mentors.
"No question about it, I feel he was paving the way for other African-American golfers," Peete said this week. "I'm glad I've had the opportunity to spend time with Pete. He's the nicest man you'd ever want to meet."
Tommy Aaron, the man who finished tied for third that week in 1964, played many rounds with Brown through the years. Brown would eventually win one more TOUR event, the 1970 Andy Williams-San Diego Open; the next three names on the leaderboard that week were Tony Jacklin, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf. Brown, in fact, outdueled Jacklin in a playoff.
"He was pretty long for back then," Aaron said of Brown. "He had a good game. I remember his hands were turned pretty far to the right, and that usually promotes a hook. Not that he hooked it, though.
"The fact that he was black didn't mean anything more to us than his personality," Aaron added. "I just remember his pleasant personality. It was easy to get along with him."
This Friday, the World Golf Hall of Fame will unveil a new exhibit, "Honoring the Legacy: A Tribute to African-Americans in Golf." Charlie Sifford will be there for the opening. Calvin Peete may show up too. Joe Louis Barrow, the CEO of The First Tee program that introduces the game of golf and its core values to young people, will be there. It was Barrow's famous father who left his signed autograph on Brown's hospital bed.
"Without question, Pete's win was a major milestone for golf and the PGA TOUR," Barrow said.
Two people who won't be there are Pete and Margaret. Pete is confined to a wheelchair now, and Margaret looks after her husband of 57 years. But Pete's presence will be felt. He is one of 13 contributors featured on the sculpture that is the centerpiece of the exhibit. There will be additional details about his career on the informational iPads.
The fact that the exhibit opens one day before the 50th anniversary of Pete Brown's historic win was a lucky coincidence, and certainly an appropriate one.
After all, history will remember his legacy. His competitors will remember the man.
And his wife will always remember that fateful call 50 years ago. Her husband had just won. He was not kidding. Now it's time to come home.