This is the latest in a series of examinations of legends related to golf and whether they are true or false.
GOLF URBAN LEGEND: Clifford Roberts once said that “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”
This is a tricky one, to be sure.
Clifford Roberts is a legend in the world of golf, and not always (heck, rarely) for things you would think he would have liked to have been remembered for, like co-founding the August National Golf Club in 1931 with Bobby Jones (then the most famous golfer in the world) and then forming the Masters Tournament with Jones in 1934.
No, Roberts (who served as the Chairman of the Masters from 1934 until 1976) is best known for being, as the World Golf Hall of Fame describes him, “autocratic, mysterious, intimidating and often enigmatic.”
Roberts (seen above with Bobby Jones sitting next to him – Jones is in the center and Roberts is on Jones’ left) was a strange guy who greatly helped to innovate the game of golf, and it was through his stewardship that the Masters became the premier golf tournament that it remains today. Roberts invented the current golf scoring system (that makes it easy for viewers to quickly figure out how a player is doing) and he designed most of the current gallery setups for fans to view the game. He ran a very tight ship but one that was geared towards making the Masters the greatest golf tournament around. In one example of how desperate he was for the Masters to be “perfect,” he even asked Jones to not come to the Masters late in Jones’ life, because Jones, enfeebled by Lou Gehrig’s Disease, would be a distraction from the festivities.
That last story shows how Roberts could be a real tough guy to work with at times. Another, more serious, claim against Roberts was over the racial makeup of the Masters Tournament.
It was not until 1975 that an African-American golfer competed in the Masters (the first non-white player was a few years earlier, Sukree Onsham of Thailand, played in 1970 and 1971).
That golfer was Lee Elder.
And many folks believed that Roberts wanted nothing to do with Elder. You see, Elder was an up and coming golfer in the late 1960s and early 1970s who had to deal with a LOT of racial crap. As the years went by and Elder continued to excel, a lot of pressure was put on to Roberts to invite Elder to play in the Masters (which he would be allowed to do, as they had done for many foreign players over the years, but never for Americans – otherwise, you had to win a PGA Tournament to qualify to play in the Masters, and even THAT was not a way to get in until the early 1970s). The United States House of Representatives even specifically asked Roberts to invite Elder. Roberts refused, stating “”to make an exception would be practicing discrimination in reverse.”
Finally, in 1974, Elder won a PGA Tournament, so he competed in the 1975 Masters and went on to compete in five more Masters over the years.
While Roberts was very nice and accommodating to Elder when he showed up for the 1975 Masters, many folks, especially fellow African-American golfer Charlie Sifford still believed (and Sifford still believes today) that Roberts had made a quote that has been widely attributed to him over the years, that “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”
Now, again, let me note that I’m not saying that Roberts was not racist. Heck, the odds are that he likely was racist (although to what degree I think is up for debate).
However, what I AM saying is that Roberts was very cognizant of what Augusta’s position on race looked like to the American public, and as such, he was VERY careful with how he spoke about race in public.
When you add in the fact that I’ve never seen anyone actually have a definitive source for WHEN Roberts said the quote (it is always either ” I heard he said it” or most commonly it is just attributed to Roberts without ANY reference, like it is obvious that he said it) or WHO he said it to, I just don’t think we can properly claim that he said the quote.
A year before Elder made the Masters, Roberts told reporters that he would be very happy if a black golfer made the tournament, and talked up a former caddie that he felt was likely to do just that. For a man as obsessed with appearances like Roberts was, he was far too calculated to make some blatantly racist comment. Sometimes, even in his carefulness he would end up sounding racist anyways (like when he talked about how fond he was about his African-American servents in his auto-biography – he is clearly trying to show that he likes black people, but the way he writes about them makes them almost sound like they’re his pets), but he would always make a point of not saying anything blatantly racist. So I just don’t buy that he would make a statement as obviously racist as that, and with no one ever giving any proof about when he said it or to who, I think it’s fair to say that, for now at least, we should go with a “false” for this one.
Roberts, by the way, ended up taking his own life on the greens at Augusta in 1977 (he was 83 years old and quite sick at the time).
The legend is…
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org