Golf legend Horton Smith has come under fire for promoting a Caucasian-only policy and barring Black golfers from the PGA of America.
Smith, a two-time Masters champion, including the inaugural tournament, recently had his name removed by the PGA of America from its “Horton Smith Award” after a review of history revealing he defended the Caucasian-only membership clause when he served as PGA president in the 1950s.
He holds a record of six professional tournament wins before the age of 21. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1990.
The decision to remove Smith’s name from the award came shortly after Wendell Haskins, the PGA of America’s former director of diversity, had a critical comment about the Springfield native in mid-June in the African American Golfer’s Digest.
Haskins wrote about different recommendations he had for the PGA of America going forward in an open letter sharing his personal experiences concerning race and the PGA during his tenure.
“Rename The Horton Smith Award,” Haskins wrote. “He was a racist.”
After the article was published, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh responded, telling Golf Digest, “I had never met Wendell, so I reached out to him and had a two-hour video chat. I listened carefully to his ideas and took them to heart in our ongoing efforts to make the PGA of America and the game of golf more inclusive and diverse. I appreciate the opportunity to share views, and we thank him for the dialogue.”
A few weeks later, the PGA of America changed the name of the award.
“In renaming the Horton Smith Award, the PGA of America is taking ownership of a failed chapter in our history that resulted in excluding many from achieving their dreams of earning the coveted PGA Member badge and advancing the game of golf,” PGA President Suzy Whaley said in a press release. “We need to do all we can to ensure the PGA of America is defined by inclusion. Part of our mission to grow the game is about welcoming all and bringing diversity to the sport.
“With the new PGA Professional Development Award, we will recognize effective inclusion efforts and honor those across our 41 PGA Sections who continue to promote and improve our educational programs. We look forward to doing more of both as we move forward.”
One of the most notable incidents in which Smith promoted the Caucasian-only clause came at the San Diego Open in 1948, when he was serving as the PGA president.
According to an ESPN article, the sponsors of the San Diego Open in January 1948, unaware of the Caucasians-only clause, invited former heavyweight champion Joe Louis to play in its inaugural event.
Louis, along with Bill Spiller, were both informed by Smith that they would be excluded from the San Diego Open. No reason was given publicly, but it was well-known it was because they were Black. The PGA’s bylaws at the time didn’t allow non-white players in tournaments co-sponsored by the organization.
Louis, who was then one of the most popular athletes in the world, decided he wasn’t going to be barred without throwing a few haymakers at Smith and the PGA through the press.
An article by The Undefeated in 2018 outlined some of those public comments:
“I want people to know what the PGA is,” Louis told The New York Times on Jan. 14, 1952. “We’ve got another Hitler to get by? Horton Smith believes in the white race (the way) Hitler believed in the super race.”
“This is the last major sport in America in which Negroes are barred,” Louis told the Los Angeles Sentinel.
“It’s about time that it is brought into the open,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, along with several movie stars supported Louis, whose tactic ultimately worked.
Louis became the first Black golfer to compete in a PGA-sanctioned event on Jan. 17, 1952. In the same group as Smith, Louis shot four over par in the opening round and missed the cut with a 158 after 36 holes.
The belief was that he was allowed to play because he was exempt from the PGA’s bylaws because of the sponsor invite he received.
“Joe Louis, as a two-handicap amateur golfer, was invited to play in the San Diego Open by the sponsors and representatives of the San Diego Country Club, where the event will be staged,” Smith told the Atlanta Daily World. “His invitation is concurred by the PGA tournament committee and he will be welcome to play.”
Spiller was still denied entry into the tournament, according to The Undefeated article, by Smith and tournament supervisor Frank Caywood, who explained “he is not a member of the PGA, nor on the PGA tournament player list.”
“We have rules and we don’t make them just to be tough but to control play in the tournament. Section one of article 3 of our bylaws state: Any professional golfer of the Caucasian race over 18 years of age and residing in North or South America is eligible to become a PGA member,” Smith added. “In view of that section of our rules, Spiller obviously could not become a member, and therefore, under PGA rules cannot play in the San Diego Open.”
According to Spiller’s account in the book “Gettin’ to the Dance Floor, an Oral History of American Golf,” when he once entered a room, Smith acknowledged him and said, “You’re Bill Spiller, aren’t you? Is there something you want to say?”
“I know and you know that we’re going to play in the tournaments,” Spiller said. “We all know it’s coming. So if you like golf the way you say you do, and I do, I think we should make an agreement so we can play without all this adverse publicity. And take that Caucasians-only clause out of your constitution so we can have opportunities to get jobs as pros at clubs.”
To the latter request, Smith said golf was a social game and, “We have to be careful who we put on a (club) job.”
In the same book, Spiller asked Smith why he wasn’t listed in the pairings for the first round even though he qualified. He got the answer he knew was coming and responded “That’s not good enough for me. I’ll see you in court.” It was later announced Louis would be allowed to play and Spiller wouldn’t.
Smith established rules with continued tones of racism, according to an article by the San Diego Union-Tribune upon the tournament’s 60-year anniversary in 2012. Black golfers would not get PGA of America memberships. They would have to hustle for the tournament’s 10 sponsor exemptions or earn one of 10 spots as a qualifier.
“One of the conditions for a black player to play was that he had to be invited by the sponsor and approved by the host club,” former Union-Tribune golf writer T.R. Reinman said.
It wasn’t until the PGA Annual Meeting in November 1961 when the “Caucasian-only” clause was removed from the PGA’s bylaws — seven years after Smith’s tenure as the PGA of America’s president came to an end and two years before he died of Hodgkin’s disease.
To this day, Smith has been considered one of southwest Missouri’s athletic greats with his “Joplin Ghost” nickname. He was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1964 and Professional Golfers Hall of Fame in 1958.
Smith is also the namesake of a golf course in Springfield — which is operated by the Springfield-Greene County Park Board. The Horton Smith Golf Course opened in 1962.
The Park Board announced shortly after Smith’s name was removed from the PGA of America’s award that it was investigating the matter further.
“We just learned of this news today, and we haven’t had a chance to vet out what it means for us,” Parks Director Bob Belote said in a news release. “Parks facilities are places where we bring people together, where everyone is welcome, and everyone should feel safe among equals. This is information we’ll need to share with the Park Board and investigate further.”