Walker earns Northern Trust exemption

Northern Trust Open honors Charlie Sifford's legacy by giving an exemption. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- When Charlie Sifford won the L.A. Open in January 1969, Feb. 3 was proclaimed Charlie Sifford Day in the city. Eight years earlier, the 46-year-old North Carolinian had broken the PGA's Caucasians-only barrier. Now there were 10 blacks on the tour, including Charlie's nephew, Curtis Sifford.

Charlie had beaten Harold Henning of South Africa on the first playoff hole at the Rancho Park Golf Course, where during the first round he shot a 63 that included a 28 on the inward nine. It was his second PGA Tour victory. In 1967, he had won the Greater Hartford Open.

There was a parade for Charlie down 103rd Street through the heart of Watts. During the 1965 Watts riots, almost every building along the busy thoroughfare had been burned to the ground. The Watts Chamber of Commerce made Charlie its first inductee into the Watts Hall of Fame.

Charlie would give a speech that day at the Black Fox, a nightclub in Watts. "It's just so wonderful to think that a black man can take a golf club and become so famous," he said.

When African-Americans couldn't play most PGA events, they could always count on an opportunity to play in the L.A. Open. In 1948, Bill Spillers, a sweet-swinging African-American player, had been in contention early in the tournament, alongside Ben Hogan, the eventual winner. Charlie and the other black pros would start their seasons in Los Angeles, then take a long forced break as the tour went through the Jim Crow South. And in those days, no matter how well they played, an invitation to the Masters was never forthcoming.

This past October, the 89-year-old Sifford was inducted in the Southern California Golf Association Hall of Fame. This honor came two years after the Northern Trust Open (formerly the L.A. Open) began honoring Sifford's legacy by giving an exemption to a player who represents the advancement of diversity in golf.

This year's recipient is 36-year-old Andy Walker, a Phoenix native who played two years on the Nationwide Tour, after playing on the 1997 Pepperdine national championship team. Walker now teaches full-time at the Legacy Golf Resort in Phoenix. In Golf Channel's "Big Break Ireland," which aired late last year, Walker finished fourth.

At Pepperdine, Walker was teammates with Jason Gore, a PGA Tour winner who received a sponsor's exemption into the Northern Trust this year after fans started a campaign on Twitter to get him into the event. Like most of that Pepperdine starting five that won the national championship, Walker had a stellar college record, but when they each turned pro, he was the only one who didn't get much financial support to start his career.

"When most players come out of school and they have had some success, they get judged on their merit," Walker said. "But when you're black you get judged off of if you are better than Tiger. White players aren't asked if they can beat Phil."

Forty-three years after Sifford won the L.A. Open, Tiger is the only full member of the PGA Tour of black African descent. Joseph Bramblett, a 23-year-old former Stanford player, had his card last year but didn't play well enough to retain it for 2012.

If Walker hadn't had been in a head-on car accident in 1999 in Los Angeles, or if there had been more money for him to play full-time, he might have made it into the tournament this week as a full-fledged PGA Tour member. If he had been fully funded, he says he would have tried more often to qualify Monday into Nationwide Tour events, instead of playing the Canadian Tour or the Gateway Tour, where he was almost assured of cashing a check at the end of the week.

"I have been the missed-by-one-shot king for the last 12 years," Walker said.

Walker has admittedly had his chances; now he wants to help the next generation of young minority players make it to the PGA Tour. At Legacy, he hopes to build an academy that helps young minority players take the next step toward playing professional golf. "I want Legacy to be our IMG Academy," he said.

And while Walker feels confident that he can compete this week at Riviera, his reasons for being here exceed the opportunity to finally fulfill a dream of playing in a PGA Tour event. "This exemption isn't just mine," he said. "It's for all the people who have helped me get here."

His caddie this week will be Jeff Dunovant, a friend and mentor who teaches at the Charlie Yates Golf Course in Atlanta. Dunovant's late father, Harold, was one of the first African-American Class A PGA pros. In 1986, Harold founded the National Black Golf Hall of Fame, where Jeff is the executive director. Walker's swing instructor is Bill Dixon, an African-American teacher in Phoenix.

A black player with a black caddie and a black teacher is nonexistent on the PGA Tour. There were substantially more black players and caddies on the PGA Tour in Sifford's era, when black players poured off the all-black United Golf Association onto the tour. These were players who got into the game as caddies. The last time there was a regular black player and caddie tandem was in the 1980s and '90s when Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe each had black caddies on their bags.

"I know that Bill has something more invested in me than time and money," Walker said. "He wants to see me play well. I'm not a client to Bill. It's the same way with Jeff.

"This is their chance to be on the PGA Tour and for them to get in front of some players. If I go out and do things in the right way, then they can come along with me."

Walker's last point about bringing other African-Americans along with him has been one of my criticisms of Tiger Woods over the years.

Though the 14-time major winner has recognized the pioneering achievements of Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder, he hasn't reached back with his time or resources to help others realize the opportunities he's had as a player in a sport that once blocked entrance to people of his color. The Tiger Woods Foundation is essentially an after-school program that doesn't deal with diversity in the game, neither in terms of playing nor the business side of the sport.

"If Tiger Woods won't do it," Walker said, "I will. I think what we're going to leave behind is more than what we do with our golf clubs. The golf clubs give us a chance to do more for our community.

"I want to make it easier for the young brothers and sisters who come behind us to have access the right way to the game."

Tiger probably would not disagree with Walker's assessment of the reach of the game, but he hasn't so far publicly tried to help young minority players in a substantial way.

So regardless of how Walker plays this week at the Northern Trust Open, he has his sights on some bigger goals. All Charlie Sifford had wanted 50 years ago was a chance to play. Even if you weren't a golf fan in Watts on that February day in 1969, you were proud of the L.A. Open champion. Sifford was one of their own.

Walker is sure the future will see more black winners of the old L.A. Open. Said Walker: "I don't think that it's a coincidence that when we're given the opportunity we succeed."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.