When Margaret Brown followed her trail-blazing husband, Pete, around PGA Tour golf courses in the 1960s and 1970s, she says she usually tried to stay one shot ahead of him.
That is, when Pete Brown was hitting his drives, Margaret Brown was already down the fairway, so she would be close to where his ball finished bouncing and rolling. That way, she says, “I could keep people from stepping on his golf ball and giving him a bad lie. That used to happen to him all the time.”
Pete Brown, born in Port Gibson and raised in Jackson, was the second African American golfer to play the PGA Tour, following closely behind Charles Sifford. Brown joined the tour in 1963 and the next year became the first black golfer to win a PGA Tour tournament in the old Waco Invitational.
Those were different times in America. Pete Brown, who died in 2015 at the age of 80, was playing in tournaments at private clubs and golf courses where he wouldn’t have been allowed on the premises if not for his PGA standing. Many in the nearly all-white galleries didn’t want him to win and let him know it in sometimes threatening terms.
He often could not stay in the hotels where the other golfers were staying. Those were white only.
“Pete was playing in the Michigan Open one year and played well enough to get into a sudden death playoff,” Margaret Brown said. “So there he was on the first tee of the playoff, about to hit and a bunch of guys outside the ropes hollered, using the N-word, wanting to know what Pete was doing out there where N-words don’t belong.
“Well, everything was real quiet, and Pete backed away from his shot. Everyone was waiting to see what he was going to do. And Pete just stood there, and then he doubled over laughing. He had himself a belly laugh and shook his head. And then the other folks started laughing, and it kind of diffused the situation. So, Pete went ahead and hit.”
And then Pete went ahead and won the playoff. Later in his career, in 1970, he won the San Diego/Andy Williams Invitational, beating the great British golfer, Tony Jacklin, in a playoff. Brown came from seven shots off the lead in the final round to win the tournament. You’ll probably recognize the name of the guy who finished third, one shot out of the playoff: Jack Nicklaus.
For all those reasons, Pete Brown has been selected to enter the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in the Class of 2020. Margaret Brown was in Jackson Monday for the announcement. Six people make up the Class of 2020. All are deserving, none moreso than Pete Brown, who didn’t live long enough to enjoy the announcement, much less the ceremony.
“This means a lot to me,” Margaret Brown said. “It would mean a whole lot to Pete. I wish he was here. I wish he had lived to enjoy this, but it’s better late than never. Pete, he’s looking down right now and he’s smiling, and he’s saying, “Amen!”
Pete Brown, the son of southwest Mississippi sharecroppers, picked cotton and peas as a youth to help his family get by. When the family moved to Jackson, he began to caddie at the public golf course, getting 35 cents for nine holes, or 55 cents for 18. He usually carried other peoples’ clubs 36 holes in a day, making just over a dollar. Sometimes, near dark, he would sneak onto the golf course to play a few holes. He played with a left-handed 3-wood and a right-handed 5-iron he had retrieved from a lake.
Pretty soon, Pete Brown was playing well enough to beat most of the folks for whom he caddied. The closest place where he could play golf without sneaking on to the course was in New Orleans. Pete and two or three of his friends would load up their car and drive 200 miles to play the game they loved. That was just on Mondays. Otherwise, even that course was “whites only.”
Now days, most pro golfers began swinging golf clubs when they were little more than toddlers. They go to expensive golf schools to learn the finer points. Tiger Woods famously was on the Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” at age 2. Pete Brown got his first set of golf clubs when he was 20. He was self-taught. Think about it.
Pete and Margaret, a Morton native, met as teenagers at a basketball game at Jim Hill High. They dated, fell in love and married. They raised six children, all girls. Much of the time, Pete was out trying to make a buck playing golf while Margaret was, as she puts it, “a stay-at-home mom.”
“Pete loved his baby girls,” Margaret Brown says. “He called them his six princesses. He always said I was the queen.”
So, think about this: From those most humble beginnings, Brown climbed golf’s ladder at a time when the sport was 99.9999 percent lily-white. Before blacks were allowed on the PGA Tour, Brown played something called the Chitlins’ Tour for accomplished black golfers. He won the U.S. Negro Open four times.
And then, he earned the right to play on the PGA Tour, and then he won tournaments. He paved the way for players such as Calvin Peete and, much later, Tiger Woods. He was friends with Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf and Arnold Palmer.
Pete Brown withstood jeers and many other slights because of his race. He often changed into his spikes in the parking lot because he wasn’t allowed clubhouse privileges. He was never allowed to play in invitation-only tournaments, such as The Masters. He just played where he could.
“Pete would just let it roll off his back,” Margaret Brown says. “He was the most kind, easy-going man you would ever meet.”
Yes, he was. I interviewed Brown at the old Magnolia Classic in Hattiesburg in 1983 during one of those years when Mother Nature decided thunderstorms and floods, not golf and birdies, were in order. I asked Pete for a few minutes. We talked for at least two hours, about golf, family, about Mississippi, about all he had overcome. He was kind. He was funny. He had a firm handshake, a warm smile.
He was 48 at the time, looking forward to that new-fangled PGA Senior Tour. By then, he was a club pro in Dayton, Ohio, introducing young black boys and girls to golf in a program that was a precursor to today’s First Tee. He wanted to make sure that any kids who wanted to play golf didn’t have to sneak onto golf courses at dusk and play with two clubs, one left-handed and one right-handed.