Golfer Pete Brown: First Black PGA Tour Winner

Pete Brown didn't just overcome racism and Jim Crow segregation laws to forge a winning PGA Tour career, but also polio: He had to spend a year in the hospital during the 1950s, then re-learn to walk, talk and golf. Still, in 1964 he became the first African-American golfer to win an official PGA Tour tournament.

Full name: Peter Brown

Date of birth: February 2, 1935

Place of birth: Port Gibson, Mississippi

Date and place of death: May 1, 2015 in Augusta, Georgia

Brown's Biggest Wins

On the PGA Tour, Pete Brown had two victories:
  • 1964 Waco Turner Open
  • 1970 Andy Williams San Diego Open
He also won the Michigan Open in 1962, not a PGA Tour tournament. Brown won the national championship of the United Golf Association (the circuit for Black golfers that existed when PGA golf was segregated) twice:
  • 1961 National Negro Open
  • 1962 National Negro Open
Reliable UGA records are hard to find, but Brown is usually credited with 10 UGA tournament wins. Those included four wins in the UGA Lone Star Open and three in the UGA North & South.

Brown's Historic Win at the Waco Turner Open

In 1964, Pete Brown became the first Black golfer to win an official PGA Tour tournament — that is, one that was run by or co-sponsored by the PGA of America's Tournament Division, which, at that time, ran the tour. Charlie Sifford had won the 1957 Long Beach Open, but in that year it was part of the tour's satellite circuit and so was considered an unofficial-money event.

Brown was 29 years old at the time of the 1964 Waco Turner Open, playing out of Los Angeles. (The tournament, contrary to what you might think based on its name, was not played in Waco, Texas, but in Burneyville, Oklahoma. Waco Turner was the name of the Oklahoma businessman who put on the tournament.)

Brown opened the tournament with matching 71s in the first two rounds. He moved into contention with a third-round 68 that positioned him one stroke off the lead heading into that fourth round.

He reached the final hole with the lead, but after Dan Sikes had chipped in for a closing birdie to get within one. Brown knew he needed a par to win.

The 18th hole was a 232-yard par-3, and Brown's tee ball overshot the green. His ball came to rest in a rocky area behind the green. Brown later said he had butterflies and was "scared to death," but he chipped to 30 inches from the hole. "Hit one of the best shots I ever did in my life off them rocks," he said many years later, recalling the tournament.

Brown then sank the par putt for the win, finishing at 8-under-par 280. That was one stroke better than runner-up Sikes; Miller Barber was among those in third place, and Sifford was among those another stroke back. (Sikes and Brown were friends, and they had helped desegregate the public golf courses in Sikes' hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.: Sikes, locally famous, showed up with Brown and another African-American pro, Ted Rhodes, to play, daring course personnel to stop the hometown PGA Tour star from playing with his friends.)

It was a momentous victory, as golf was one of the last major American sports to desegregate at the highest levels. But it happened the same day as Jack Nicklaus was winning the Tournament of Champions, and many newspapers gave bigger coverage to Nicklaus' win.

More About Pete Brown

Pete Brown was born in Port Gibson, Mississippi, but grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a time when Jim Crow segregation laws were enforced, often brutally, by local authorities. But Brown found a way to flout some of those laws to find a foothold in golf. He started caddying at Jackson's municipal golf course at age 13. Blacks could work there, but weren't allowed to play golf there. Brown's first golf club was one he rescued from a pond after, presumably, a frustrated golfer had flung it there. Using that single 5-iron, Brown began sneaking onto the golf course very early in the morning or just before dusk.

"We had enough time to play one or two holes and run," he later remembered.

Adding a club here and a club there, Brown soon was outplaying the golfers whose bags he carried as a caddie. At age 19, in 1954, he decided to head to Houston and enter the Lone Star Open as a professional. That was a tournament on the United Golf Association circuit, a loosely organized tour for African-American golfers who were not, at that time, allowed to play on the PGA Tour.

That 1954 Lone Star Open was Brown's first time playing a tournament, the first 18-hole round of golf he ever played, the first time he wore golf shoes or a golf glove. He finished ninth playing with a borrowed set of clubs.

But in 1956, Brown was stricken with a form a polio. He spent a year bedridden in a hospital, largely unable to speak or to move. In 1957, he began regaining movement, but it was a slow, painful process learning to speak and walk again. And then, to golf again.

Brown, quoted in the 1971 PGA Tour Media Guide, explained, "Some friends had been visiting me for months and they had brought me a golf club. I had been trying to grip it. Finally, when I was able to walk well enough, I was allowed to go outside to see if I could swing the club. I had no coordination and I couldn't even come close to hitting the ball."

Back home in Jackson, Brown continued his path to recovery, working hard on his motor skills and then on his golf skills. And he finally got back on the golf course, and back to his former level. It was only in 1958 that Brown finally got his own, new, full set of golf clubs.

But his fight with polio affected Brown's golf swing for the rest of his life. "Because my back isn't as strong as it was before I became sick, I've had to flatten my swing," he once explained. "It's not the kind of swing I like, but I have to put up with it."

He might not have liked his swing, but his swing liked him: When Brown got back into tournament golf on the UGA circuit, from 1959-62 (the PGA of America still did not allow Black members), he won 10 tournaments, including the UGA National Negro Open in 1961 and 1962. Brown also earned his first victory in an integrated golf tournament at the 1962 Michigan Open, coming from behind in the final round to force a playoff that he won on the third extra hole.

The PGA of America had voted in 1952 to allow Blacks to play in PGA co-sponsored tournaments, but for most Black golfers that proved mostly just talk. No African-American was granted a PGA Tour membership card until Charlie Sifford in 1961, when the PGA finally removed a clause in its charter that said PGA membership was for "caucasians only."

In 1963, Pete Brown joined Sifford when he received his PGA playing card. He made his first PGA Tour appearances that year, without much success.

But 1964 was a whole different story. Brown notched the historic win at the Waco Turner Open, becoming the first African-American winner of an official PGA Tour tournament. He finished runner-up in the Sunset-Camellia Open Invitational. And he was second again in the Almaden Open Invitational after losing a playoff to Billy Casper. It was an 18-hole playoff that also included Jerry Steelsmith. Brown and Casper matched 68s and continued to sudden death, where Casper won with a birdie on the third extra hole, the 21st hole overall.

Brown finished a career-best 29th on the money list in 1964.

The ensuing years weren't as productive, and Brown still struggled with his back — and with his putting. Brown once described his golf game this way: "I'm a good driver but a terrible putter. It's the worst part of my game." (In a 1962 article about Brown's Michigan Open win, the Associated Press writer began his article with the words, "Putting gives Pete Brown the shivers.")

But Brown got another PGA Tour win in the 1970 Andy Williams San Diego Open. He shot 65 in the final round to catch and tie Tony Jacklin, then won the sudden-death playoff on the first extra hole. He also recorded another second-place finish in the 1971 Pensacola Open.

Brown got into eight major championships, four U.S. Opens and four PGA Championships. His first was the 1964 PGA Championship and last the 1978 U.S. Open. Brown's best finish in a major was a tie for 33rd in that 1964 PGA.

He finished in the Top 60 of the money list in 1964, 1970 and 1971. For his career, Brown made 356 starts on the PGA Tour, and made the cut 225 times. In addition to his two victories, he was runner-up three times, finished third once, and had 22 Top 10 finishes. His final appearance on the PGA Tour was in the 1985 San Diego Open.

Like many tour pros of his and especially earlier eras, Brown also worked as a club pro. In 1971 he took a job as head pro at Tilden Park Golf Club in Berkeley Hills, California. From 1981 through 2004 he was head pro at Madden Golf Course in Dayton, Ohio.

In 1985, upon turning 50 years old, Brown joined the Champions Tour. He had no wins in 80 total starts, but did post three Top 10 finishes. His final start on the senior circuit was in 1998.

Brown was 80 years old when he died in 2015. He is a member of the National Black Golf Hall of Fame, Mississippi Golf Hall of Fame and Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

In 2019, the Jackson, Mississippi municipal golf course, where Brown was, solely because of the color of his skin, banned from playing as a child and into adulthood, was renamed in his honor. Today it is known as Pete Brown Golf Facility.

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