African-American pioneer Sifford passes away at 92
February 04, 2015
By Larry Dorman, Special to PGATOUR.COM
- February 04, 2015
- Tiger Woods with Charlie Sifford at WGC-Bridgestone in 2009.(Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Charles Sifford, whose successful battle for the abolition of the "Caucasian-only" clause ended segregation in professional golf in the United States and paved the way for black pros to compete on the PGA TOUR, died Tuesday. He was 92.
Sifford had recently suffered a stroke. Details of his death and funeral arrangements were not immediately available.
“Charlie Sifford was a pioneer in our sport, breaking down barriers and paving the way for everyone able to compete at the highest level to succeed on the PGA TOUR,” PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem said. “Charlie’s induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame put an exclamation point on a remarkable career, where he proved to be a tenacious competitor and an outstanding player. We truly mourn his passing."
An intense, driven competitor and self-taught golfer who rose from the caddie ranks in North Carolina, Sifford ultimately became the first African-American golfer on the PGA TOUR in 1960 and, in 2004, was the first black player to be enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Last November, President Barack Obama presented Sifford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are the only other golfers who received that honor.
"I first met Charlie when I was just 18 years old and playing in my first PGA TOUR event," Nicklaus recalled Wednesday in a statement on his website. "Charlie and I were grouped together the first two rounds and we hit it off from the first tee and remained good friends ever since. When I look back on that first round -- me, a wide-eyed kid making my first swings and taking my first steps down the fairway in a TOUR event -- I can’t think of a better person to have walked side-by-side with than Charlie Sifford. He was kind, gracious and a true gentleman.
"Charlie helped pave the way for my TOUR career, but in the much larger picture, he helped pave the way for so many in the game of golf. Charlie led by example, handling himself with great class and dignity inside and outside the ropes. Because of steadfast pioneers like Charlie, the PGA TOUR I joined in 1962 was a TOUR that welcomed all. We can’t underestimate the impact Charlie’s career has had on the face of golf today. Charlie was a leader and an inspiration. Most of all, to me, he was my friend. My wife, Barbara, and I will miss Charlie, as will the game of golf."
On Wednesday, President Obama released a statement on Sifford's passing: "Michelle and I offer our condolences on the passing of golf legend Charlie Sifford. Charlie was the first African-American to earn a PGA TOUR card – often facing indignity and injustice even as he faced the competition. Though his best golf was already behind him, he proved that he belonged, winning twice on tour and blazing a trail for future generations of athletes in America. I was honored to award Charlie the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year – for altering the course of the sport and the country he loved. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, his friends, and his fans."
Commissioner Finchem remembers Charlie Sifford
PGA of America president Derek Sprague also issued a statement: "It is with great sadness that the world of golf has lost a faithful ambassador in PGA Member Dr. Charles L. Sifford. His love of golf, despite many barriers in his path, strengthened him as he became a beacon for diversity in our game. By his courage, Dr. Sifford inspired others to follow their dreams. The PGA of America extends its thoughts and prayers to Dr. Sifford’s family. Golf was fortunate to have had this exceptional American in our midst.”
Sifford often said that he did not start out with visions of becoming a groundbreaker or civil rights crusader.
"All I've ever wanted to do is play golf for a living and show that a black man can play golf as well as a white man," Sifford wrote in "Just Let Me Play," his autobiography published in 1992. "I fell in love with the game the first time I set eyes on a golf course, and luckily I had the kind of natural talent and determination that it takes to become a successful golf professional.
"But I had hazards placed before me that no pro before or since has had to deal with and my career has had as much to do with breaking down barriers as it had to do with driving and putting."
Sifford, born June 2, 1922, first picked up a golf club as a 12-year-old caddie in Charlotte, where he was born and raised in a peaceful mixed-race neighborhood not far from the exclusive Carolina Country Club. He earned 60 cents a day, of which 50 cents went to his mother, Eliza Sifford, and the remaining dime went for a cigar of the type that became his trademark later in life.
He quickly became a scratch player, and by the age of 16 was playing matches with Clayton Heafner Sr., an accomplished pro who twice finished second in the U.S. Open. Some club members began to voice their displeasure about how much time the young Sifford was using clubs as opposed to carrying them. Club owner Sutton Alexander sensed what was happening and suggested that Sifford move north to Philadelphia to work on his game in a less hostile environment.
Sifford, then 17, moved in with his Philadelphia uncle, James Sifford, and honed his skills as a golfer at the Cobbs Creek Municipal Course with the first set of clubs he owned -- the Lawson Little model Wright & Ditson driver, 3-wood, 5-wood and set of irons purchased on layaway for $135.
World War II intervened, and Sifford did his stint as a soldier. He resumed practicing shortly after his discharge from the U.S. Army's 24th Infantry Division in 1946 and was soon playing in tournaments on the United Golf Association (UGA) circuit. During the next 14 years he won 11 UGA events, including six Negro National Opens, against strong competition that included black golf legends like Teddy Rhodes, Pete Brown, Charles Owens, Zeke Hartsfield and Bill Spiller.
Sifford also won two satellite PGA events and, after winning the right to compete on the PGA TOUR in 1960 when he was a few months shy of 38 years old, he persevered through some very tough times before winning two PGA TOUR events ñ the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open.
Remembering Charlie Sifford
The long and often arduous climb for Sifford began one year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and three years after the PGA of America had instituted the Caucasian-only clause into its bylaws in 1943. Early in the journey, he got an inkling about what he would face in the years to come.
At his first appearance in the Negro National Open, Teddy Rhodes introduced Sifford to the popular jazz musician, singer and band leader Billy Eckstine, who later hired Sifford as his personal golf instructor. Sifford became friendly with other habitues of the UGA circuit, including heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, the great middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson, Ike Williams and, in 1947, Robinson, who gave Sifford some valuable insight after first asking him a question about forging ahead with plans to contest golf's Caucasian-only clause.
"Are you a quitter?" Robinson wanted to know, to which Sifford replied, "No, I'm not a quitter."
As Sifford recalled it, Robinson continued, "If you're not a quitter, go ahead and take the challenge. If you're a quitter, there's going to be a lot of obstacles you're going to have to go through to be successful in what you're trying to do."
Robinson warned Sifford that people would curse him, call him names, probably threaten him with physical harm, try to distract him while he was hitting a shot, holler the usual racial epithets, anything to rattle him and make him lose his composure. As it turned out, all those things happened.
"Above all," Robinson concluded, "you can't be going after these people who call you names with a golf club. If you do that, you'll ruin it for all of the black players to come."
Sifford remembered taking it all in and nodding his assent. "I made up my mind I was going to do it," he said. "I just did it. Everything worked out perfect, I think."
Certainly, Sifford's record for keeping his cool was exemplary. There were times when the annoyance could build and a question would elicit a curt reply. But as to losing it and going after his tormentors, his record was perfect. It didn't happen, whether the slight was small -- as when the tee announcer at Greensboro in 1961 introduced him as "Charlie" Sifford, a rarely-used nickname that stuck -- or of the vicious variety, like the gang of gallery goons at the same tournament that hurled threats, insults and racial slurs for more than half the round.
"It was a tough time for Charlie to go through what he went through, but he paved the way for a lot of us to be where we're at," Tiger Woods, the principal beneficiary of the battles Mr. Sifford waged, said at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. "I know my dad probably wouldn't have picked up the game if it wasn't for what Charlie did.
"We owe a lot to him and all the pioneers that have paved the way for us to be here."
Terrible loss for golf and me personally. My grandfather is gone and we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man. I'll miss u Charlie.— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) February 4, 2015
Tiger Woods remembers Charlie Sifford
Charles Owens, one of those pioneers, a man with two bad knees and a cross-handed golf swing who won a Champions Tour event in 1980, was reflecting on what Sifford went through while trying to qualify for a TOUR event in Phoenix in 1953, when he and three other black golfers reached the first green to find the cup filled with excrement.
Owens told the Sacramento Bee that Mr. Sifford "went through tar in hell. What he went through was like being tied down in a room with a spigot going 'drip, drip, drip.' It'll drive you crazy. But Charlie's too tough to go crazy."
At his World Golf Hall of Fame induction in 2004, Sifford showed no signs of the torture, instead wearing the satisfied look of a man who had finished what he set out to do. Gary Player presented him in a class that also included Tom Kite, Marlene Stewart Streit and Isao Aoki.
“I was fortunate enough to be in their company and play golf tournaments with them,” said Sifford at his induction ceremony, referencing the legends of the game he competed against. “I never was a player like they were, but I appreciate all of them accepting me. I was just a little caddie boy from Charlotte, North Carolina, from a very poor family out there running up and down behind this little white ball. And now getting inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame? How about it? It makes me feel like I’m a worthwhile professional golfer.”
On Tuesday, Player discussed Sifford and their friendship on Golf Channel's Morning Drive.
“One of the greatest honors of my life, was when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and he asked a white South African to induct him in the Hall of Fame," Player said. "That was a very great honor for me in my life because I had a long friendship with him.
“I continued to phone him all through the years, and he always ended his call with ‘Love you my man.’ He always said, ‘Love you my man.’
“One of his messages he left behind was, ‘Learn to accept adversity. Keep fighting.’ He paved the way, he was a pioneer.
“Having had similar lives to him, there is one thing that stands out in my mind: Evil will prevail unless good men make a stand, and that applies to Charlie Sifford.”
At the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony last November, President Obama noted the discrimination Sifford encountered while just trying to play golf.
“On the tour, Charlie was sometimes banned from clubhouse restaurants. Folks threatened him, shouted slurs from the gallery,” Obama said.
The President added: “Because golf can be a solitary sport, Charlie didn’t have teammates to lean on. But he did have his lovely wife Rose, and he had plenty of guts and grit and that trademark cigar.”
There may have been some loose ends, but they were not of his making. The hometown of Charlotte that had sent him away in 1939 for the crime of getting too good at golf, named a course after him -- The Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course at Revolution Park -- and welcomed him back to the opening in 2012.
The "Dr." was an honorific bestowed on Sifford at the Home of Golf, St. Andrews, Scotland, an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by St. Andrews University.
All the battles behind him, Sifford was smiling out at the crowd that applauded him with gusto.
"You know, it's a wonderful thing that a little black man from Charlotte, North Carolina, a caddie, can go through all the obstacles he went through and wind up being inducted into the Hall of Fame, the World Hall of Fame," Mr. Sifford said. "It doesn't get any bigger than that."
The PGA TOUR's Laury Livsey and The Associated Press contributed to this report