Charlie Sifford dies at 92; often called Jackie Robinson of golf
By Mike Kupper
Charlie Sifford, the gruff, cigar-chomping African American who paved the way for minority players in professional golf, died Tuesday. He was 92.
The PGA of America announced his death but did not specify the cause.
Sifford, known as much for his short swing as his short answers to interviewers’ questions, was commonly referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of golf,” an appellation he viewed with a jaundiced eye.
“If I was the Jackie Robinson of golf, I sure didn’t do a very good job of it,” he said often. “Jackie was followed by a hundred great black ballplayers. I was followed by no one.”
True, there has been no surge of African American golfers since Sifford, with a boost from a California attorney general, climbed over pro golf’s “Caucasians only” wall in 1960. But there has been a representative number. And had not Sifford persisted, would the sports world ever have heard of Tiger Woods, who became the dominant player in the sport? Or Vijay Singh of Fiji, Native American Notah Begay III, or South Korean K.J. Choi? Would Lee Elder, Woods, or anyone else without white skin, have ever been allowed to play in the Masters — a tournament Sifford never did get to play?
The easy answer: “If it hadn’t been Sifford, it would have been someone else.”
Perhaps, but Elder, the first African American to play in the Masters, would disagree.
“Without Charlie Sifford, there would have been no one to fight the system,” he told the New York Times in 1992. “It took a special person to take the things he took — the tournaments that barred him, the black cats in his bed, the hotels where he couldn’t stay, the country club grills where he couldn’t eat.
“Myself, I don’t think I could have taken it because I’m a little too thin-skinned. Charlie was tough and hard.”
Which was precisely what he needed to be, for what he couldn’t do with his talent, he did with his gumption, finally getting his tour card when he was 39, well past any athlete’s prime age. Even so, he won twice on the PGA Tour — one of those victories was in the 1969 Los Angeles Open — twice on the senior tour, consistently finished seasons among the 60 top money winners, was the first black player enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004 at St. Augustine, Fla., and in 2008 was honored as that year’s Ambassador of Golf. In 2014, he was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the nation.
“I really would like to know how good I could have been with a fair chance,” he pondered from time to time. “I loved the game, and I had a gift, but I had too much pressure. I will never know.”
It wasn’t so complicated at the beginning. Born in Charlotte, N.C., on June 2, 1922, Sifford was working as a caddie at the Carolina Country Club, out-earning his father at 60 cents a day, when he was 10, and playing the course on Mondays, when the club was closed to members, or whenever he could sneak in a few holes on other days.
Hence, his short swing: “I was always moving fast to keep from being thrown off the course. I never learned how to take my time…and develop a decent stroke.”
Still, he was shooting par golf — and smoking cigars — by the time he was 13. At 17, Sifford was taken aside by Carolina Club owner Sutton Alexander, who told him it would probably be best if he stayed away from the club.
“I had gotten too good and the members didn’t like it,” Sifford told the Atlanta Constitution. “Mr. Alexander was concerned about my physical well-being.”
So Sifford headed north to Philadelphia, where he had relatives, and spent the next four years working in a biscuit bakery and hustling golf at Cobbs Creek, a public course open to black players. Then it was off to the Army for service in the Pacific — he fought on Okinawa — during World War II, and when a 26-year-old Sifford returned to the States, it was with the firm desire to become a pro golfer.
In 1943, however, while Sifford was serving his country, the PGA of America, which ran the pro golf tour at the time, had inserted a “Caucasians only from North or South America” into its rules for membership. Thus, when Sifford applied, he was denied on the grounds that he wasn’t Caucasian. And when he tried to enter PGA-sponsored tournaments, he was denied because he wasn’t a member.
Sifford was determined, though, and kept picking away. He played — and won six national titles — on a circuit set up by other black golfers, and spent several years as a personal coach and assistant to singer-bandleader Billy Eckstine, playing wherever and whenever he could in the few PGA events that accepted non-whites.
“I went to Jackie [Robinson] and told him what I wanted to do,” Sifford recalled often. “He asked me if I was a quitter. I told him I wasn’t a quitter and he told me to go ahead and take the challenge.”
And it was a challenge. In 1952, playing in the Phoenix Open on an invitation obtained through former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, Sifford, Louis and their all-black foursome arrived at the green on the first hole and found the cup filled with human excrement. They had to wait an hour for the cup to be replaced.
At another tournament, again playing on an invitation, Sifford made a hole in one, which, it had been advertised, brought with it a new car and a cash prize. Somehow, though, the offer had been withdrawn, it was determined, just before Sifford teed off.
And always, there were hecklers yelling racial insults, kicking his ball into the rough, shouting death threats. Sifford ignored them as best he could, and played the best he could.
In 1955, at the Canadian Open, one of those tournaments that welcomed non-whites, Sifford led the first round after shooting a 63. That put him a stroke ahead of Arnold Palmer. Palmer went on to win, but Sifford showed in that tournament that he could play with the best.
In 1957, he won the Long Beach Open, and although it was not a tour event, it was co-sponsored by the PGA of America and included a number of name white pros.
Finally, in 1960, the PGA gave in and issued Sifford an “approved player” card. It wasn’t membership, but it allowed him to play in whatever tour events he could qualify for. And then, in 1961, under a threat by Stanley Mosk, then California attorney general and later state Supreme Court justice, to bar the tour from the state, the PGA caved in all the way, removing the “Caucasians only” clause from membership requirement.
Sifford didn’t take the tour by storm but he displayed his talent — and his mettle — in one of his first tour events and his first in the Deep South. It was the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open in his home state of North Carolina, where not everyone was happy to see him. Sifford was heckled and harassed — at one point his ball was kicked off the fairway and covered with beer cans — but he kept his composure, shot a 68 and led the first round.
That night, staying at the home of friends, he was told in a phone call not to show up for Round 2.
“Whatever you’re going to do,” he replied, “you’d better be ready at 9:20 because that’s when I’m going to be out there on the first tee.”
Sifford finished fourth in that tournament but later admitted to having played scared.
“It was one of the most frightening and dangerous things I’ve ever done,” he told the Daily Telegraph of London. “Of course I was worried. A black man playing golf in Greensboro, N.C.? I was worried, all right.”
Sifford is often credited with having been the first African American to win on the tour, but it didn’t happen that way. Pete Brown, who took advantage of Sifford’s pioneering and joined the tour when the offending clause was removed, beat Sifford to the punch, winning the 1964 Waco Turner Open in Burneyville, Okla. Sifford broke through three years later in Connecticut, winning the ‘67 Greater Hartford Open. He was 45.
In 2009, 40 years after Sifford won the L.A. Open, the tournament organizers established in his honor a sponsor’s exemption for a minority golfer who otherwise would not have been eligible to play in the event.
Sifford was preceded in death by Rose, his wife of 51 years. Among his survivors are sons Charles and Craig.