MLK's impact extended to golf

Too often, the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is shrouded in sweeping platitudes. The symbolism of his dream comes around to us as holidays do with much fanfare then silence until the next year. But Dr. King's death was a national tragedy of epic proportions that ensnared even the mostly sheltered world of professional golf.

On Thursday, April 4, 1968, the Greater Greensboro Open began at the Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C. Billy Casper took the first round lead with a 6-under 65. That afternoon in Memphis at around 6 p.m., Dr. King was cut down by an assassin's bullet on the balcony outside his motel room. The civil rights leader was in Tennessee to support the city's striking sanitation workers.

President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning on the Sunday after the assassination, so most sporting events were postponed, including the final round at Greensboro. In the 36-hole Monday finish, Casper shot 69-66 to win by four shots.

That Tuesday, King's funeral services were held in Atlanta. According to Alfred Wright of Sports Illustrated, when the Masters started two days later 150 miles up the road in Augusta, the mood was somber.

"Quiet" is how one player after another described the atmosphere as they came off the golf course during that first round.

The 1968 Masters is best remembered for Roberto De Vicenzo incorrectly signing his scorecard to miss a chance to get in a playoff with Bob Goalby. But on an international stage, the major championship was overshadowed by the sadness and violence that consumed the country in the aftermath of the death of one of America's greatest heroes.

In golf, we tend to look primarily at Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder as the trailblazers to social justice and recognition for blacks in the sport. Yet, Dr. King left his own specific imprint on the game.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which King pushed for perhaps harder than any man in America, banned segregation in public facilities like municipal golf courses and swimming pools. The law enabled blacks in the south widespread use of public golf courses for the first time.

Four days after King's death, John Conyers, a Michigan congressman, introduced legislation on the House floor to commemorate King's life, but Congress took no action. So young civil rights workers started petitions and conducted protests at public events, even golf tournaments.

During the third round of the 1969 PGA Championship at the NCR Country Club in Dayton, Ohio, protesters walked on the 10th green as Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus lined up their putts. One of the protesters picked up Nicklaus' ball and threw it into a bunker. Another protester told Player, a South African, "it's not against you or your country, it's against the PGA Tournament."

Earlier in the week, the protesters, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization King had helped to found in 1957, presented a list of 27 demands to the PGA Tour. The demands included 2,000-3,000 free tickets for the poor as well as recognition of a national holiday on King's birthday.

But it would be 1986 before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was observed as a national holiday.

On the King holiday in 2009, the Northern Trust Open announced that it had created a special exemption for a player who represents the advancement of diversity in the game. The exemption honored Sifford, the first African-American to earn membership on the PGA Tour.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The country has made significant strides in fulfilling Dr. King's dream of a nation not consumed with racism, in which every person is judged on the content of his or her character, not skin color.

But there is still much work to be done. The multi-billion dollar golf industry still doesn't fully reflect King's multi-racial vision of America. Programs like the First Tee promise black and hispanic children the opportunity to learn important life skills, but the organization and its sponsors need to do more to integrate minorities into the daily workings of the elite corporate culture of golf with more internships and jobs.

More than 50 years after Sifford first came on tour, Tiger Woods is the only player of African descent with membership. There are just two African-Americans -- Joseph Bramlett and Jeremiah Wooding -- with any status on the Web.com Tour.

But the dour number of blacks on tour is a larger problem than just race.

"My biggest problem is that I've got no sponsors or backers," Sifford said in 1963. "Every time I go into a tournament, I'm strictly on my own. I know I'm playing for my bread and butter. The result is I try too hard. I can't be relaxed. I'm always pressing."

Sifford, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004, could have been speaking for most pro golfers, even in 2013. But perhaps the tour could do more with its vast financial and organizational capabilities to bring more blacks to the professional game.

Dr. King would have been proud of our golf-playing African-American president, our multi-racial 14-time major champion and a black female Augusta National member.

Condi Rice grew up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s. Rice was a kindergarten classmate of one of the four little girls who was killed in the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.

A black female Secretary of State was inconceivable when King wrote his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail in 1963. Back then, the only black women in the Augusta clubhouse were cooks and maids. Now, Rice wears a green jacket and sits among titans of industry as an equal.

Barack Obama, Tiger and Rice stand on the shoulders of Dr. King's legacy. We all do.