When the Kemper Open begins at Congressional on Thursday, three of the four black golfers on the PGA Tour will be among the field of 146, including Calvin Peete, the tour's fourth-leading money winner. Last weekend, Washington's Lee Elder, the first black to play in the Masters, won the $50,000 first prize in the Coca-Cola Grand Slam in Tokyo, a stop on the Senior PGA Tour.
Still, despite the high visibility and success of the few black players on the regular and senior tours, there is concern among black golfers that there are not enough talented young black players coming up through the ranks.
"I don't see the younger players, the guys in their 20s and early 30s headed for the tour," said Charlie Owens, who plays on the Senior Tour. "The black golfer is deteriorating. Today there's only three or four on each tour, and it should be 15 or 20. It can't be getting better, so it must be getting worse."
Elder will be 51 in July, Owens is 56 and Charlie Sifford will be 63 in early June. All three play, with varying degrees of success and regularity, on the Senior Tour.
Peete is one of the best golfers in the world. He has won $306,498 this year and is again among the leaders in scoring average, driving accuracy and greens reached in regulation. Although he has been on the tour only 11 years and has won nearly $2 million, he will be 43 in July.
Jim Thorpe, who withdrew from the Kemper yesterday, won twice last year and is in the top 40 on the money list this season. Thorpe, formerly of Falls Church, has been on the tour since 1978 and is 37.
At 47, Jim Dent is the oldest of the black players who are relatively established on the regular tour. But Dent, born in Augusta, Ga., has finished in the top 100 only once in the last seven seasons and had to go to the PGA's qualifying school to get back on tour this year.
In the qualifying school tournament, 18 places behind Dent and two away from failure, was Adrian Stills, 28, from Orlando, Fla., and the only other black now on the regular tour. After he graduated from South Carolina State in 1979, he became a pro in 1980, but he did not qualify for the tour until last year. So far, he has won $2,328 on tour.
Twenty-five years ago, neither Stills nor any other black golfer could have played on the PGA Tour because of what was known as "the Caucasian clause" in the PGA constitution, an eligibility rule that stated that only "pro golfers of the Caucasian race" could play. That clause was eliminated in 1961. But the best black players of today know full well that not many other blacks have joined them on tour, and they think they know why.
Once, caddying served as an introduction to the game for many players -- both black and white -- but the electric cart has all but eliminated caddies, except at professional and major amateur tournaments.
So how do youngsters outside the country club set become exposed to a game that is expensive to play, even on public courses?
The number of golf courses in America has increased, but so has the number of people using them. The number of high school golf teams has remained about the same over the past decade, but with budget cuts affecting many educational programs, those numbers may decrease, cutting off another avenue to young black golfers.
The National Golf Foundation says there are 17.5 million golfers in the United States and that 3.9 percent of the population under age 20 plays golf. As for participation by minority players, the NGF says it doesn't know.
"We have no data," said Colin Hegarty, a foundation research associate. "But blacks and Hispanics are two very large segments of the population that are very under-represented."
Elder knows all about that. He also knows that progress for minorities has been slow.
"Certainly there are more blacks playing golf than 10 years ago, but the number on the tour is decreasing," Elder said. "When I came on, there were as many as 12. Today, there's only three or four on the regular tour and three or four on the Seniors. Financially it's harder, and the all-exempt tour are two reasons why. Black golfers are not prepared for the strenuous qualifying. Coming out of college, white players are better prepared."
The all-exempt tour began in 1983. Players earn exemptions in a variety of ways, including winning tournaments or placing high in the money rankings. Before the all-exempt tour, players could qualify every week on the Monday before the regular tournament began. That meant anybody could show up, shoot a decent score and make the tournament. Now qualifying tournaments have many more restrictions and lessen the number of players who can advance.
Elder used to own and operate Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington, but he knows this area is hardly a hotbed for young developing black golfers.
"The Washington area is one of the hardest areas for blacks to be affiliated with golf," Elder said. "There are no real good public facilities, and you can't play on the white country club courses. It's one area where there are not that many young black kids involved. Within the inner city, of the three public facilities, none is good enough to really practice and try to prepare for a career.
"When we were coming up, it was the same way. It has not changed."
For Elder, Owens and Sifford, the worst years are over. They played on the black circuit in front of a few people and for little money. To make ends meet, they often caddied for inferior white players, gave lessons at driving ranges and depended on golf course bets just to survive.
"The prize money on the black circuit was about $3,000 to $5,000," Owens said. "You paid an entry fee, and they didn't have a large number of spectators. It's more like an outing. But it was the only way to earn money to support yourself."
"The United Golf Association Tour -- that's how I got started," Elder said. "I don't know if I would have gotten to the PGA, were it not for that."
"I'd say that's the way 90 percent of black golfers came up, and it will continue unless the colleges and universities do something."
Elder said he believed the success of black players had helped reduce some of the racism that was so much a part of the game in the past.
Sifford disagreed. "No, it's still there, and I believe it always will be there," he said from his home in Brecksville, Ohio. "You can tell from who does endorsements. You don't see Calvin Peete doing endorsements and you don't see Jim Thorpe doing them. The perception is that they don't need blacks."
Rose Elder, Lee's wife and business manager, said of the successful black golfers' effect on racism: "It has helped a great deal. These are gentlemen of character. These are gentlemen of tremendous ability and skill. They've competed and survived. There's still subtle racism; unfortunately, we still live in a racist society. But they have done a lot to erase the myths about black golfers, that they are not capable. Golfers come from all walks of life. But they have survived and are paving the way for other black golfers to come behind."
Rose Elder said that research she has had done indicated that of 183 Division I college golf teams, only three are at predominantly black schools. But everyone seems to agree that more schools -- at every level -- should include golf in their athletic programs.
"The only way to get blacks into the game is junior programs and get them to go to college," Sifford said. He lamented the low number of black schools with golf teams. "Most guys who are playing golf on the tour now went to school for free on scholarship. They weren't all rich."
Despite some criticism from black professionals that the PGA has not done enough to bring the game to minorities, Commissioner Deane Beman said the tour does make the effort.
The PGA is establishing Family Golf Centers, which essentially are glorified driving ranges that the association says has made the game more available to a larger market, including blacks and other minorities. The PGA also runs a number of clinics at tour events that are open to the general public.
"We're doing more than anyone else has done," Beman said. "That may not be a lot, but we've been funding free clinics for five years."
In Detroit, Selena Johnson's minority program has some lofty goals and could serve as a model.
Johnson runs the Hollywood Golf Institute when she isn't working the graveyard shift in the operations office of the Detroit airport. "Hollywood" is the nickname Johnson was given during her nine years as a Detroit police officer.
Her nonprofit golf program involves about 125 minority children, with another 40 likely to join in the summer, ranging in age from 4 to 17. Johnson, whose 10-year-old daughter began playing golf five years ago, estimates that 60 percent of the kids come from low-income families, with the rest in the middle-income range.
The program runs January through September, but the beginners don't get near a golf course until they have had classes on theory, technique, strategy and etiquette. Twice a week, the children practice together -- indoors when it's cold -- and they play tournaments on weekends. Once they are at a stage where they can play on a course, they do it gradually, first playing only five holes, then nine. They also don't have to have clubs to start.
Johnson requires a child to have a C-plus average in school, and the ultimate goal, she said, is to have the children win golf scholarships to college.
David Green of Washington Heights, Md., also is thinking about professional golf.
Green, a black golfer who consistently shoots in the 70s, is a junior at Bowie High School and a member of the Bulldogs golf team, which won the Metropolitan High School Championship.
"I started because of my father. I saw him going out to play and I wanted to have a chance," said Green, who has been playing for only three years. "The first thing he said to me was, 'Do you want to be a hacker forever or do you want to be a pro and work at it?' I said I wanted to be a pro and work at it."
Now when Green needs a few rough edges smoothed, he goes to Langston and sees Willie Jefferson, who gives lessons there and is known as Barracuda, or "Cuda" to the regulars.
"He's got the physical attributes, but what he can do that I haven't seen in too many black kids is not go to pieces if he gets bad breaks," Jefferson said of Green. "Most kids take two or three holes to get back together. You need that emotional poise to get back into it after breaks -- and breaks are the name of the game. A lot of kids hit the ball as well as he does, but don't have that intrinsic quality."
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Jefferson also played the black circuit, taught lessons, caddied and hustled to make ends meet.
As part of a different generation with more doors unlocked, if not open, David Green should not have as much difficulty.
"It wouldn't do any good to relive the past," Jefferson said, "but David came at an opportune time. If he can learn to play the game, there are no obstacles in his way. He will have to deal only with a minimum of racial slurs, derogatory remarks and hassle from the gallery, because of the forerunners. They made it possible. He can never use it as a crutch and cannot say he never got a chance." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Calvin Peete, one of the world's best golfers, is No. 4 on the tour money list and is among the leaders in scoring, driving and greens reached in regulation; Washington's Lee Elder, 50, won last weekend's Senior PGA Tour event and a $50,000 first prize.