Charlie Sifford never claimed he would have been one of golf’s greatest players. But in 1960, already past his prime at the age of 38, he proved he was still good enough to break golf’s racist colour barrier and win his membership on the Professional Golf Association tour.
Sifford died on February 3, at the age of 92. In his elder years he was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame, granted the Congressional Medal of Freedom, and awarded an honourary doctorate from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. Tiger Woods credited him as his inspiration and role model, and called him “Grandpa”. None of those things mellowed Sifford’s anger at the treatment he received, and he remained critical of racism in America.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sifford grew up caddying and taught himself the game. There was a professional tour for black players, but the prize money was never enough to live on. Sifford was lucky enough to be hired by singing star Billy Eckstein as his golf coach and general assistant.
While he never claimed elite status, Sifford said there were black golfers, now virtually unknown, who would have qualified: “The best black player who ever lived was Teddy Rhodes. I chased him for years beginning in 1947 and never could beat him when it mattered. There was so little money in the United Golfers Association tournaments, and to make anything you had to beat Teddy. And I couldn't do it. Finally Teddy got old. I won the Negro National Open five times in a row starting in 1952, and later won twice on the PGA Tour. But take the two of us in our primes, and Teddy was better. I saw them all, and I've always felt Teddy was as good as any of the best white players of his era, and that includes Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.”
When the PGA was finally forced to allow Sifford to play in 1960, the racism didn’t end. He said that some pros would step on his ball or kick it into hazards. He endured racist heckling from galleries and players. Many tournaments were held at courses where he was refused entry to the clubhouse. Friends on tour, like Lee Trevino or Gary Player would bring him food and eat with him on the course.
Until 1962, every player to win a tournament on the PGA tour automatically was invited to play the prestigious Masters in Augusta, Georgia: “The Masters didn't want blacks in general and didn't want me specifically. When I got on the PGA Tour, the one thing I was certain of was that I would never get invited to Augusta no matter what I did. In 1962 I shot a 67 in the second round of the Canadian Open to take the lead, and the club immediately got a phone call. The next day there was an announcement: ‘The Masters will not offer an automatic invitation to the winner.’”
Until his death Sifford refused to set foot on Augusta National. He never gave up and he never backed down from a fight. He was instrumental in turning the whitest of sports into the international game it is today.
“I don't smile much, and I never laugh,” Sifford told Golf Digest magazine in 2006. “It's just something that's in me. If you'd been through what I've been through, you wouldn't be smiling, either. Walking around smiling all the time would have made no sense. It would indicate I approved of the way I was being treated, when I damn sure didn't approve.”