How one man made his way to professional golf against great odds February 28, 2012 By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
Jim Dent carved his way from the caddie yards of Augusta, Ga., to become a successful golfer on the PGA and Champions tours. (John Mummert/USGA)
In the 1950s, Jim Dent was a rangy black kid knocking golf balls around The Hill, a course in a poor Augusta, Ga., neighborhood with crude holes carved out by hand. One kid had a discarded 5-iron, another had a putter, another a wedge. Dent and his friends would hit a battered ball, then yell, “Gimme the 5-iron,” and hit it again.
For them, golf was just a pastime with seemingly no future. Golf had long struggled with issues of diversity and with The PGA of America’s Caucasian-only clause still in effect, the most that black golfers could hope for was an opportunity to caddie.
Dent knew all about caddieing. He had carried bags at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. He had raked bunkers and tended flagsticks at lush Augusta Country Club, which was just over the fence from The Hill. That fence represented the seemingly insurmountable barrier Dent faced, a wall around the professional tour. But the tour was Dent’s dream, and that made all the difference.
The road from Augusta’s caddie yards to golf riches was littered with hazards. Dent was not alone on that road. Many early players, of all races, emerged from the caddie ranks. With hard work, talent and that dream, Dent traveled the hard road and gained the respect of the world of golf.
Today, Dent seems content as he sprawls in a chair at Tampa’s Rogers Park Golf Course (another layout carved out by black golfers in the 1950s). In his fine wool slacks, his soft leather loafers polished to a high sheen, Dent looks sleek. And even though Golf Channel may send a chauffeured car to bring him to its Orlando studios, the ex-caddie has never forgotten who he is.
When Dent was a child, his father, Tom, drove a pulpwood truck. With Dent’s mother, Carrie, Tom owned wooded farmland not far from Augusta Country Club. The fourth of six children, as a little boy Dent’s job on the farm was to make the fire in the morning.
“I was big enough to do that,” Dent said. “I was still real young when my parents died, but there was my aunt. Her name was Mary Benton, a great lady in my life.”
Dent’s mother died when Jim was six. His father died when Jim was 12. Benton, a housekeeper at one of Augusta’s big houses, raised Jim and three of his siblings with a firm hand. When young Jim said he wanted to caddie to earn money, Aunt Mary said no. “If you learn how to caddie, you’re going to learn how to gamble,” she said.
“Kids think they’re the smartest people in the world,” Dent said. “Second thing I learned how to do when I learned how to caddie was shoot dice and play cards. She was dead right.”
Benton finally allowed Jim to caddie and eventually play golf, perhaps swayed by the presence of a minister, Jimmy Raines. Raines was also a good golfer and he conducted Bible studies in a field that Dent and his friends had turned into a few golf holes. On Saturdays, the boys played three holes before Bible study.
“That’s what really got us into golf and got some of us straight too,” Dent said. “He saved a few of us.”
Dent first caddied at Augusta Country Club, where the worst golfers paid $4 or $5 a round and the best players paid just $2. He sought out the better players, despite more meager paydays.
“I wanted the best golfers because I’d learn a lot from them,” he said. “My aim was to watch them play but I didn’t know what a golf swing was all about.”
Dent later caddied at Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters and studied the best players – Hogan, Nelson, Snead, Demaret and Burke – then applied what he learned to his own swing. He was 17 when he bought his first set of clubs from Henry Avery, a kind shop hand at Augusta Country Club, for a hard-earned $30. “That was a lot of caddieing,” Dent said.
One of Dent’s most memorable loops was with Masters champion Bob Goalby. Goalby would become a friend but at first the relationship was contentious. Goalby, Dent said, was temperamental.
“One day he said to me, ‘You go in.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m going.’ He said, ‘Pick up the bag. That’s what’s wrong with you guys, you’re too temperamental!’ He could change that fast and say things like that. I learned that golf can make you do some crazy things.”
Frank Stranahan, who wouldn’t let Dent touch the club grips, was another client, as was Marty Fergol, another free spirit. “He told me you can’t win with a ball over No. 7. And he said, ‘Don’t smoke, son, because smoke gets in your eyes and you can’t see,’” Dent remembered.
There were serious challenges. As a child, he lost his parents. As a teenager, he carried golf bags to earn a little money. Now the color of his skin kept him from many of Augusta’s golf courses. It was just the way things were.
Dent is philosophical about that discrimination.
“If they tell you, ‘That’s water over there. You can’t go in that water. Gators are in there. Don’t go in there,’ you’d be a fool to go in there,” he said. “But you don’t let things like that bother you if you want to do something. Schools were segregated and you didn’t let that bother you. You’d go crazy! That’s the reason you see so many young boys today, black and white, they get carried up in stuff they can’t do.”
In the scramble to find places to play, Dent had some success. The four armed forces golf courses in Augusta allowed blacks and on Mondays, caddies could play where they worked. Access was hard.
“You really didn’t think about that,” Dent said. “You don’t let nothing keep you back. At Augusta Country Club, if you went out and helped them take crabgrass out of the greens, you could play Friday morning. It wasn’t nothing to go out there and spend an hour or more. All you gotta do is cut the crabgrass up. So we did that. And there was a field down there where we played golf. They’ve made it a range at the Augusta Country Club but that’s where we used to play golf. We had about six holes down there. See, a lot of things happened back in the Jim Crow days but there was some places you could go play.”
In 1959, Dent won a football scholarship and played end at predominantly-black Paine College, a Methodist school in Augusta not far from The Hill. The lure of golf was too great, however, and Dent quit school after a year to work on his game. He knocked around Atlantic City, N.J., for about seven years, working as a busboy and waiter at the Smithfield Inn. He and James Black, another fine black player who helped Dent with his game, traveled to some events conducted by the United Golfers Association, the association for black golfers.
Dent followed his dream to California and met Mose Stevens, a wealthy black businessman who gave Dent his next big boost. Stevens was more than impressed with Dent’s ability to hit the ball long. Each morning, Stevens bought a big tub of balls at a local driving range and left Dent to practice.
A chance encounter brought Dent to 1933 U.S. Open champion Johnny Goodman, who was also the 1937 U.S. Amateur champion. Goodman was intrigued by Dent’s talent, so Stevens ponied up $125 for Dent to take six lessons from the old champion.
“I’m going to take what you got and work with what you got,” Goodman said then.
“How great can a conversation be if you’ve got any kind of common sense,” Dent said. “He’s going to take what you got and work with you. And so, he worked with me and he showed me.”
Along the way, Goodman shared stories of his life: How he had ridden the rails from Omaha, Neb., to Pebble Beach, where he beat Bob Jones in the 1929 U.S. Amateur.
“Now, how great a speech is that for a man to tell you and you want to do something that he already did?” said Dent. “He was a great guy. He showed me how to chip and how to run the ball up. Johnny was a great ambassador of golf.”
In the late 1960s, Dent made his first try at the PGA Tour qualifying school, shooting 74-75, then sliding to an 85.
“Made nine straight bogeys,” he said. “And it was a blessing. It let me know I just wasn’t ready.”
He went back to California to work on his game. The following year, he fired 282 for 72 holes at Tucson (Arizona) Country Club and qualified for the PGA Tour.
“It was the show!” said Dent. “I learned when you get out there with those guys, you got to produce. You just don’t want to be happy out there. I got better each year and the third year I finished in the top 60 and top 60 was the glory days. You were exempt to everything. It was great.”
Along the way, Dent remembers, he had a lot of help: Homero Blancas and Paul Runyan worked with him on his short game. Joe Roach, a well-known caddie, sometimes carried his bag. More importantly, as a black player in the 1970s, he was not alone. Charlie and Curtis Sifford, Lee Elder, Chuck Thorpe and George Johnson formed the nucleus of a group of about a dozen black players on the tour. Dent said he faced very little discrimination.
“You know, I never had any problems because Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown and Lee Elder, those guys just kind of paved the way,” he said.
In the course of his PGA Tour career, Dent won four unofficial tournaments and a bit more than a half-million dollars, then headed for the riches of what is now the Champions Tour. He won more than $9 million in senior golf. Dent has great memories of those days, not so much of the 12 victories he earned, but of how spectators embraced the senior golfers. Birmingham, Ala., was a great stop. The 1999 U.S. Senior Open in Des Moines, Iowa, where thousands of spectators gave the players huge ovations, is another favorite memory.
While he will never have to caddie again, Jim Dent has never forgotten where he came from. Along the way, he bought a fine house for his aunt, Mary Benton. When he gave her the keys, he told her the house was in her name. Benton said Dent should keep it in his name. “No,” he told the great lady, “you need something in your name.”
Dent seems at peace. At 72, he plays in scattered senior tournaments, including the Legends of Golf. Because he’s a colorful interview he can occasionally be seen on television. He’s a generous man who makes charity appearances and has been known to aid old friends who are down on their luck.
He has two children from his first marriage. Dent and his wife, Willye, to whom he’s been married for 21 years, have adopted five children. His family life is gratifying but golf is never far from Jim Dent’s mind.
“What I learned about playing golf has probably kept me all through life,” he said. “You had to be honest. You had to work at it. You just couldn’t pick it up today and not come back ‘till next week. And if you broke a rule, you had to turn yourself in.”
Dent’s passion for the game has taken him from a boyhood in Augusta’s caddie yards to the pinnacle of a great peak, made up of players who helped pave the way for others. If Dent’s life today seems very good, it’s because he earned it in the most extraordinary way.
The late Rhonda Glenn was a manager of communications for the USGA.