Jim Dent’s PGA Tour career is not particularly memorable: four wins in all, three of them in the Florida PGA Championship. Dent has achieved much of the results–sportswise and financially–in his senior playing career, during which he won 12 tournaments. That’s not what we want to focus on, though.
Jim Dent was one of the first black Professionals. Throughout his career he has had to struggle not only with the typical demons of the aspiring golfer, but also with racial segregation. Here’s how he did it.
Working as the caddie, the way to perdition
This is the 1950s, in Augusta. Jim is a blackorphan boy ofmother and father, raised by his aunt. Life does not seem intent on promising him great things: we are in the midst of racial segregation, and his family does not have great means. Jim can’t do much except work hard and look down on the profile of Augusta National Golf Club.
In that magical place, the great tournament The Masters is held. From time to time, Jim and his friends drill holes in the ground and pretend they are there, competing for the title. All of a sudden they are no longer clutching drivers and putters put together as best they can. All of a sudden the color of their skin is no longer an issue.
Because yes, in the 1950s the PGA Tour was reserved for white males, as were most golf clubs. How can a black kid like Jim hope to get there someday if he can’t even get on a golf course to learn? It is a story over before it begins.
In fact, Jim has a way to gain access to Augusta National Golf Club: working as a caddie. He could get hired and learn the secrets of the sport from the players he assists. He could, if only his aunt would let him: according to her, working as a caddie means taking the road to perdition.
Jim despairs: he will never get into Augsburg. Except that one day he discovers that the course is also frequented by Jimmy Raines, a dedicated Bible study man and golf addict. If even he attends the club, it can’t be such a bad place, can it? Jim’s aunt is convinced and, finally, Jim Dent’s journey begins.
A place to play: is that too much to ask?
Getting hired as a caddie is only the first step and not even the most difficult one. Jim needs to learn how to play and, more importantly, find places in which to practice. For the first thing, he relies on the many unwitting teachers to whom he carries the bag: he places side by side-and observes-Hogan, Nelson, Burke… Finding camps that will accept him is harder.
AtAugusta National Golf Club they are lenient: if you’re black, you can’t even think about joining; if, however, you’re black and take away free bags of weed, you can get as much as an hour and a half of play on Monday. Luxury. It works the same way at the four armed forces golf courses: if you are black, you can only play on Mondays and only if you work for them. The selection is so hard, but at least Jim finds where to play.
At seventeen, Jim could put this golf madness behind him. Paine College offers him a scholarship for athletic merit, and he joins the football team. He drops out after a year: the lure of golf is too powerful.
Life (and career) begins at age 50
Jim Dent has been working as a waiter for seven years, juggling underpaid, unpaid jobs and just golf and tournaments. He communes with James Black, another aspiring black Professional with whom he tours from tournament to tournament. They mainly participate in tournaments organized by the United Golfers Association, the association for black golfers.
Jim’s passion takes him to California, where he meets his future patron Mose Stevens, a businessman who is also black and fascinated by the boy’s passion. Mose buys Jim balls for practice, even pays for his private lessons with old golf champion Johnny Goodman. He is curious to see what it will result in, so much passion.
In 1966, Jim Dent turned professional and, also during those years, managed to qualify for the first PGA Tour events. It would be nice to be able to say that he starts picking up wins and gains right away, but that would not be true. In fact, there is still a long way to go for him.
Jim’s real career began when he turned 50 and moved on to the Senior PGA Tour. Until then, he earned only $500,000 as a Professional, very little when commensurate with his efforts. In 10 years as a senior, he won 12 tournaments and earned $9 million.
The real happy ending
Knowing that Jim eventually achieved his goals, even managing to make a living while doing so, would already be a good ending. The really cool thing, however, is another: today Jim has a son and he, too, dreams of becoming a golfer.
Unlike his father, however, Joseph Dent did not have to break his back with bags of weed to play for a couple of hours. He was able to join golf clubs in the area, he was able to take lessons with masters. For him, the road has been much easier, just like that of his white colleagues.
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