SAN JOSE -- The golfer with a weathered, brown face and stiff shoulders approached the ball wielding a huge, bulbous club forged from modern alloys. But his backswing barely rose above his right shoulder, eliminating any chance of a powerful shot. And then, on the downswing, he looked more like a groundskeeper shoveling sand at the hole. Still, the old golfer's swing was true.

"I'm lucky if they go 160 yards now," Joe Rodriguez said recently during a round at Sunol Valley Golf Club, north of San Jose. "But at least they go straight."

He's 81 and my tocayo -- Spanish for someone with the same name. He's also a founding member of the Santa Clara County chapter of the Mexican American Golf Association, which turns 50 this year after a half-century of browning a white sport.

MAGA aged with Rodriguez. He could drive the ball almost 300 yards in his prime. Likewise, the group's membership has shrunk, and recruiting new blood is harder these days. But like Rodriguez, MAGA still shows up on time, still follows through and still hits them true.

"It has nothing to do with the score," said Leo Martinez, a member for 20 years and Rodriguez's playing partner that day. "That's how we like it."

The beginning

In the late 1950s, a fed-up golfer named Nash Hernandez began organizing Latino golfers who were having trouble getting onto some public courses in the conservative Central Valley. It's by now forgotten, but even the charter of the PGA stipulated as late as 1962 that the group was for Caucasian players only.


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Adopting the peaceful approach of the civil rights movement, Hernandez figured the spirit of equality, solidarity and sheer numbers would win out. Mobilize dozens of brown golfers for their own tournaments, and they couldn't possibly be denied.

The strategy worked. MAGA incorporated in 1962 and began to spread out and integrate golf. Hernandez, who died in 1973, soon met and persuaded Frank Gomez, a golfer from San Jose, to start a MAGA chapter in the Valley of Heart's Delight, what we now call Silicon Valley. Gomez agreed, but not because of discrimination on local courses. Nobody ever turned him away, but he felt a need to get more Latinos into the game he loved.

On a lot of days on the course, "I was the only one," Gomez said.

He and Rodriguez recruited a handful of others and put on monthly tournaments, to which they invited prospective members. The chapter's annual scholarship fundraiser, the La Playa Classic, on the Monterey Peninsula, remains one of the oldest tournaments in California. Golfers of any race or ethnicity are welcomed to play with the group and join as full members.

Chapters sprouted throughout the state, and membership grew as Mexican-American baby boomers discovered the game and an unabashed golfer who called himself "Super Mex" burst upon the world of golf.

When Lee Trevino won the U.S. Open in 1968, he became to Latinos what Arnold Palmer was to working class whites and Tiger Woods remains today to African-Americans. They all smashed through the barriers of a rich and elite sport.

Ever the showman, Trevino delighted crowds everywhere he went, but his history with the local MAGA chapter predates his breakout victory. Trevino was playing in the late Bing Crosby's Clambake pro-am in Monterey when Gomez sneaked in with a borrowed sportswriter pass. He got inside the ropes, where ordinary fans couldn't go.

"I met Lee Trevino when he was a nobody at the Crosby!" Gomez still boasts today.

Trevino invited him to his rental cottage after the Clambake to talk golf and MAGA, but a weary Trevino went to bed early. Making up for the snub months later, Trevino donated a set of signature clubs to the MAGA chapter as a raffle item. The $500 it brought became seed money for the chapter's annual scholarship fund for college-bound Latino students.

Upswing and peak

MAGA probably peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s, with 18 chapters and about 1,100 golfers. Today, membership has plunged to about 700, according to MAGA state president Marc Longoria, an AT&T manager from Napa County.

He attributed the decline to the aging of the group's baby boomer base, the Great Recession and competition for Latino youngsters in the digital era.

"It's that instant gratification they get from video games that they can play on cellphones," Longoria said. "Golf is a slow game."

Longoria joined MAGA because his father was a member, but he recognizes that recruiting young, successful Latino men in their 20s and 30s means adopting social media, modern marketing and record-keeping technologies the group has been slow to embrace.

"It's all about getting the young people involved," he said.

The Santa Clara County chapter is down to 31 members. Their average age is somewhere north of 60. A healthy economy should bring back some former members, but it'll take more to attract the next generation of Latino golfers for another half-century.

This generation gap showed up clearly when Rodriguez's group finished its round and gathered in the clubhouse. I asked them what purpose MAGA, or any other race-based golfing group, serves today in colorblind golf, at least golf on public courses. The answers were surprisingly unpolitical and totally cultural.

"Playing with MAGA, it's an old-school feeling," said Ken Cortez Sr. "It's like when you used to sit on the porch with your family, friends and neighbors."

The problem is that today's young Latino adults are more apt to socialize with cellphones and joysticks in hand, not golf clubs. And most don't grow up in older houses with porches. MAGA could very well join the ranks of the Mexican American Political Association, American GI Forum and League of United Latin American Citizens, all civil rights groups beset today by lack of new blood. But the golfers have something special they can pitch to the next generation: a love of the game over the rancor of politics.

Joe Rodriguez hopes to bring back an annual tournament where young Latino kids walked alongside experienced golfers, who hit the long shots. But the kids get to putt and finish.

"It was always out of a love for playing golf," Rodriguez said. "It makes me feel good I can play with a group, that they accept me."

Do you have a story for East Side/West Side? Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 or jrodriguez@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/joerodmercury.

GOLF WITH MAGA
The La Playa Classic tournament will be held May 25-26 at Rancho Canada Golf Club in Carmel. For details, contact Leo Martinez at 408-985-5384 or martinez.leo@sbcglobal.net.
To learn more about the Mexican American Golf Association, go to www.magaofcalifornia.com.