The life of golf’s first black professional

Written by Staff Writer

AFP

Former PGA Tour professional and game changeover coach Billy Bean feels firmly established in his role as a sports ambassador by adding “Black professional golfer” to his list of laurels.

“If you look at the history of golf, it is full of pioneering African-American players. Legendary ones like Alister MacKenzie, Ike Eban, Myron Marshall, Earl Mason, Gary Player, Julius Boros — the list goes on and on,” says Bean, who also golfs with former major-league pitcher Hall of Famer Jim Palmer.

“I got onto the PGA Tour because of Earl Mason, a Negro League player — no question about it. Earl and I had a key relationship that eventually led to (John) Peterson (making the tour) and the opportunity for me to come along.”

African Americans have long been overlooked and undervalued in golf, which has historically struggled to attract black fans.

But the sport has made considerable efforts to diversify its ranks in recent years, with figures including Jordan Spieth and Danny Willett — both former PGA Tour winners — recently being named Players of the Year.

Bean, who says he has had racist abuse on social media, adds that golf “changed gears” in recent years by “becoming more inclusive, not taking the politics out of it and selling a consistent product with no pandering.”

The feat was made all the more noteworthy in recent years when Tiger Woods made a record statement to the nation by becoming the first African-American to win 14 major golf titles.

The swing of Jim Palmer

Bean, who wrote “Black and Blue: My Life in Golf,” “Jim Palmer: The Game Within,” and “The Hammer: My Improbable Journey to Professional Golf,” says he’s met Woods on many occasions.

And while Bean’s own story is rooted in his encounter with famed NBA coach Pat Riley, his account of how they fell out is a more colorful one.

“One of the things I most enjoyed about working with Pat Riley and authoring the book was getting to tell that story of getting on the wrong flight from New York to California and encountering Pat Riley, where he made a mess of everything and was embarrassed,” said Bean.

“It was a wonderful moment. I had more to show after the first lesson, as the guy and his wife were rude to me and walked out of my house when I didn’t finish explaining what was going on, but it was a great experience.”

Getting to “crack the code”

Basketball and golf are closely linked, in that they have been played by blacks since the early 20th century, but golf is still widely perceived as a “whites only” sport.

“Everybody says golf is such a white sport,” said Bean. “But I remember working with Jim Abbott (when he was 16), who was a great baseball player, but his golf game was so far behind.

“I told him to pull his pants up just like he did with the baseball. I told him he had to go back out and hit about a 70-80 in a practice round. Within a few weeks, when he did the same thing, he realized he could play golf like any other man.”

Bean, who proudly lists former President Barack Obama as his hero, says the codes that golfers traditionally follow cannot be solved with brute force.

“I was lucky to get into a program when I was in the PGA Tour program that allows us to play on the junior circuit and then transition (to the adult world). That is how I became a pro.

“It’s not unlike when you play on the NBA’s Division One, which allows you to play again, even though you have failed at college.”

And while it would be a stretch to suggest that golf is a better sport for its diversity than basketball — Bean is happy to say, “It’s a little better” — he feels that the sport could be even better.

“I am always happy when someone starts a golf magazine or society to encourage the children of more people of color to get out there and play.

“It’s sad that there are always going to be a few people that will be unhappy.”

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