MIAMI — It seems like it has rained forever in Southeast Texas. If water is not actually falling from the sky then the ground is too muddy for golf, a game I used to play but that has become a distant memory. So my partner, Ramona, arranged for a quick February jaunt to Miami with pals Pete and Beth, where Pete and I could actually get on the links (she is the queen of finding deals and the flight was ridiculously cheap).
I was under instructions not to “go cheap” on the greens fees as it was her gift (she knows me well). The thing is, I’m fine with cheap. I’m not so good a player that I need to test myself against the pros. I can’t hit 350-yard drives and 230-yard five-irons. We could have easily found a course that cost $200-300 a round, but I would have been miserable at the extravagance. I just wanted to get out and whack a ball around with good company.
As it turns out, “going cheap” pays dividends. Pete and I settled on Miami Springs Golf and Country Club, the oldest course in the city. The front nine was built in 1922 and the back in 1923. It hosted the Miami Open from 1925 to 1955, becoming a fully sanctioned PGA event in 1945, and was the traditional kick off to the winter golf season, with Hall of Famers Sam Sneed winning it six times and Gene Sarazen four, as well as wins by Byron Nelson, Tommy Armour and Walter Hagen. Arnold Palmer hit his first professional shot off what is now the 10th tee in 1954 — Arnie missed the cut.
When Pete and I made our way to the club house for our appointed tee time. I innocently asked Jeff Vance, the pro behind the counter, if he had any tips for playing the course? “Is this your first time?” he asked. And with that, “cheap” became very rich indeed. With obvious pride in his voice, Vance told us that Miami Springs was the first integrated course in Miami. It was the first course to allow African Americans, but they were restricted to Monday play. And the man he credits with integrating Florida golf? None other than Jackie Robinson who had already integrated baseball. In 1948, blacks could play the course only on Mondays. Robinson was in Miami for baseball spring training and at the conclusion of his Monday round, went into the clubhouse and asked for a Thursday tee time. The next day, Vance said, 220 members of the club quit. The battle for integration eventually moved through the courts and the color bar was broken on public courses.
For the story of how Beaumont’s Tyrell Park became integrated in 1955, check out “Fair Ways: How Six Black Golfers Won Civil Rights in Beaumont, Texas” by Robert J. Robertson.
From 1953 to 1989, Miami Springs hosted the North-South Tournament, an integrated tournament that provided for black servicemen in the post-World War II era. The tournament also attracted celebrities including Robinson, Joe Louis, Nat King Cole and Althea Gibson, as well as black professionals Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Jim Dent, who were still excluded from tournaments like The Masters.
A photo of Robinson and Gibson, from the 1962 North-South Tournament, is proudly displayed in the clubhouse. Another great photo features the four women responsible for the LPGA tour — Beaumont’s own Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Louis Suggs, Patty Berg and Betsy Rawls.
Vance was a fount of stories. The New York Yankees held spring training in Miami. Players like Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle were regular visitors on the course. Apparently, “The Mick” had OCD and when he filled out his scores, if any of the numbers he wrote touched the lines of the box he would tear up his card and start again. If his signature wasn’t just right, he would tear up the card and start all over again — and all this while drunk, Vance laughed (Mantle was a notorious drinker throughout his life. His father died young and Mantle assumed he would he would as well. Toward the end of his life, when he had liver cancer, Mantle quipped, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”)
Before the round had even begun, Pete and I were sold. We headed out to the first tee where “Tappy” was ready to send us on our way to walk — or ride — in the footsteps of history. While others were paying a fortune to play on a “name” course. We had the richer experience.
Next: Playing the course.