Forty-two years after winning the San Diego Open, Pete Brown has finally made it to Augusta.
Brown, the first black golfer to win a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, never played in the Masters Tournament. But after suffering 11 strokes and congestive heart failure, he was lured to town a few months ago by longtime friend Jim Dent to get away from the cold winters in Ohio.
“Been down here once before with Jim,” said Brown, who lives with his wife of nearly 56 years, Margaret, in a home next door to Dent’s in Evans. “They took me around to see the (Augusta National) course. I heard so much about it I knew the course as well as anybody else.”
Brown, 77, won the 1964 Waco Turner Open in Oklahoma and the 1970 Andy Williams-San Diego Open at Torrey Pines, but he never fulfilled what were then somewhat fluid qualification standards to get invited to play the Masters.
Unlike his close friend and tour companion Charlie Sifford, Brown doesn’t harbor resentment for the slight.
“That really never bothered me to tell you the truth,” he said. “Of course everybody wants to play because it means you’re playing good to get to the Masters. But it never did affect me.”
Brown’s golfing life was never easy. He learned to play the game as a caddie in Jackson, Miss. Sneaking onto the course to play, “we got to where we could beat the guys we caddied for.”
So Brown moved to Detroit to become a pro. But before he could start his career, he contracted polio and spent a year mostly paralyzed in a hospital. He was 19 years old.
“Doctor told me I needed to find another sport because you won’t be playing golf because you won’t be able to walk,” Brown said. “I couldn’t move any muscles. 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. They wheeled me in and I walked out of there.”
He was back on the golf course as soon as he got out, eventually getting the necessary two signatures from Class A PGA pros to take the playability test necessary to get a card.
“They had so many ways to keep you out,” Brown said. “The guy took me out to play and give the test. I was scared to death. It was a target score you had to shoot. Before we finished they quit. They were like 10 over. They said, ‘What are we doing giving him a test? He should be giving us a test.’”
Brown became a PGA Tour member in 1963, two years after Sifford first broke that barrier when the Caucasian-only clause was stricken from the PGA constitution. He admits he had it easier being “schooled” following the paths Sifford blazed.
“Charlie had a rough time,” Brown said. “They harassed him a lot. I got about half of it because I came along right after him. So we were together most of the time. So whatever he got I got, but it got better later. When he was alone by himself, I don’t know how he made it through that.”
The experience affected each pioneer differently.
“Different personalities and different spirits,” said Pete McDaniel, a golf writer who wrote the book Uneven Lies on the history of African-Americans in golf. “Charlie was discriminated against right in his face. Everywhere he turned it seem the door closed. He was told he wasn’t welcome. He was told he wasn’t good enough. He was told he wasn’t equal to any other majority player because he was a minority. That burned his soul. So much so that he still pains from it today.
“Pete came along after Charlie so he didn’t experience all the slings and arrows that Charlie did, but he experienced enough of them that he will never forget that look he received of disapproval. That was painful to him, too, but it’s how they handled it. Charlie internalized it. Pete just understood and maybe with the help of his wife and his spirituality, maybe he was a little more forgiving and a little more tolerant of people’s intolerance. Charlie was chosen for that task. Pete was not chosen for that task even though he might have had a disposition that was better suited for it. But Charlie sucked it up.”
Margaret Brown says her husband never let it get to him.
“Pete takes things in stride,” she said. “He still believes in treating everybody the way you want to be treated. He’s had some things happen out there but it didn’t make him bitter.”
Brown’s breakthrough moment came in 1964 at the peak of the civil rights movement. At the Waco Turner Open in Oklahoma, he rallied from behind and beat Dan Sikes with an up-and-down par on the last hole.
“Hit one of the best shots I ever did in my life off them rocks,” he said.
Brown got support from the tournament’s namesake, who carried two .45 revolvers on his belt at all times and demanded his gallery tow the line on tolerance.
“People were real good,” Brown said. “Waco Turner owned the course and he told me if anybody gave me trouble to let him know.”
Brown’s win six years later at Torrey Pines – in a playoff against Tony Jacklin – was even bigger because of a field that was rich with talent including many Masters winners.
“Everybody was there like Jack Nicklaus,” He said. “I was seven strokes behind Jacklin and all the big guns. To win from that spot was unheard of. I really didn’t even want to play because I couldn’t win and didn’t really like Torrey Pines anyway. Paired with (Tom) Weiskopf the last round. He’s a fast player and I was a fast player. I loved to play fast.”
Despite the victory, Brown again didn’t get an invitation from Augusta just as Sifford hadn’t in 1967 or ’69 when he won tour events in the period when tour winners didn’t get automatic exemptions.
“Before I won (in 1964) they were taking tournament winners,” Brown recalls. “And when I won they changed the rules. They had a kind of points system, like they do now with the FedEx Cup. I always played good before Florida but never played good in Florida or I would have made it. At the time, if you played good the former champions could invite a player they thought played good enough to be invited to the Masters. The thing about it is the Masters sent out a list of players they wanted them to vote on. That was another stumbling block because if your name wasn’t on that list you didn’t play anyway. It was fine.”
Brown never complained like Sifford.
“Charlie felt slighted and singled out,” McDaniel said. “He felt every time he reached the finish line, they moved it. Pete was grateful to be given an opportunity to play on the PGA Tour. He felt that if he truly qualified for Masters they could not deny him. Maybe he didn’t feel he accomplished as much as Charlie had.”
Brown had opportunities to win after the Masters started giving exemptions to tour winners. He finished second in the 1971 Pensacola Open, the same event Lee Elder won in 1974 to earn the first invitation for a black golfer in the Masters.
“I should have won the tournament he won,” said Brown. “I was leading and guys like (Lee) Trevino said, ‘You better quit playing so good or you’re going to have to go to Augusta. You know what they’ve got waiting for you there?’ ”
McDaniel believes that pressure to break the color barrier at the Masters derailed a number of opportunities for black golfers.
“Somehow in the last round they folded and would lose by a shot or two,” McDaniel said. “My thought is there was so much pressure on them they failed because of the weight of that. I think they sabotaged their victory.”
For all his success, Brown never reached his full potential. In spite of his polio, he was one of the longest hitters on tour, but he says his short putting “was lousy.”
“I never really was healthy,” he said of the back and strength issues he endured because of the polio. “Couldn’t play two consecutive weeks. I was leading golf tournaments a few times and had to leave the golf course because of my back. Been to every hospital in every city.”
Chi Chi Rodriguez offered to pay for his back operation, but Brown was afraid to get it done. He became a club pro in 1981 at Madden Golf Course in Dayton, Ohio, and did that before retiring in 2004.
“I never had any regrets,” he said of a career in which he played with most of the greats including Nicklaus, Trevino, Roberto de Vicenzo and – most often – Arnold Palmer. That first victory in 1964 remains the benchmark of his career.
“At the time it was big,” he said. “It opened up a lot of things and I had the opportunity to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have been able to do without winning.”
Even though the Masters door was never open to him, Brown is content to live out his life in a home on Dent’s property in Evans. His legacy as an African-American pioneer is secure.
“His significance is he was there,” McDaniel said. “He was there during a difficult time as far as history was concerned when blacks weren’t wanted. He showed us that not only could we persevere but we could succeed at the highest level. Just as significant as Charlie Sifford in my book. Both were battling and trying to make their way in a game that didn’t want them. He was the first one to win a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, which means he is a first. All the younger golfers coming behind him I’m sure it gave them motivation and stick to it and succeed themselves.”