In 2004 I was fortunate enough to be covering the World Golf Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in St. Augustine, Florida where I witnessed one of the most heart wrenching speeches by inductee Charlie Sifford. Up until that day there were no African-Americans in the Hall of Fame. Now 10 years later President Obama will bestow the nation’s highest civilian honor on the 92 year old Sifford- the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are the only other golfers to have received this high honor.
Charlie Sifford broke barriers all his life. He was the first African-American to play the PGA Tour. It was Charlie who opened the professional ranks of golf, a game with a “Caucasian only” rule to blacks until 1961 when a lawsuit filed in California made the PGA of America drop the clause.
There was a time when none of this seemed possible. Jackie Robinson’s courageous integration of Major League Baseball in 1946 is widely credited for changing the American sports landscape forever. One year later, toughened by a tour of duty in the Amy’s 24th Infantry during the Second World War, another young black man told Robinson he planned to follow in his footsteps and compete in golf, a sport where the ball and the participants were equally as white. It would take 13 years before Charlie Sifford was to earn his PGA player card in 1960 at the age of 39.
Born June 2, 1922, Sifford started in golf the only way a kid with his skin color growing up in North Carolina could-as a caddie. He earned 60 cents a day, gave his mother 50 cents and kept 10 cents to buy stogies, which has been his trademark on the golf course ever since. By the age of 13, he could shoot par golf.
Sifford’ skin was tough enough to endure racial bigotry and epithets. At the 1952 Phoenix Open Pro Am, Sifford and his all-black foursome, that included World Champion boxer Joe Louis, found excrement in the cup on the first hole and waited nearly an hour before anyone made an effort to replace the cup. Despite all the insults and injustice, Charlie lived up to the standard set by Jackie. Unlike Robinson, Sifford fought his battle without teammates, essentially alone. He broke barriers by breaking par. He won the National Negro Open five straight times from1952-1956, all the while pushing golf’s color boundaries.
In 1967 he won his first PGA event, the Greater Hartford Open, and then again in 1969, the Los Angeles Open. Sifford won the 1975 PGA Senior Championship at Walt Disney World,and was an original member of the Champions Tour, where he won the 1980 Suntree Classic in Melbourne, Florida.
In hearing of Charlie’s November 24th Presidential Award, Tiger Woods said “You’re the grandpa I never had. Your past sacrifices allow me to play today. I’m so happy for you.”
Congratulations to Mr.Charlie Sifford, a true golf hero, from eSouthernGOLF.com.