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Fri, 06.02.1922

Charlie Sifford, Professional Golfer born

Charlie Sifford

*Charlie Sifford was born on this date in 1922. He was a Black professional golfer.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Charles Luther Sifford’s early exposure to golf came at the Carolina Country Club, where he worked as a caddie.  He earned 60 cents a day on the course, nearly all of which went into his mom's pocket to help keep the household going. He was a quick learner, however, and by age 13, he could shoot par. The Carolina Country Club owner, Sutton Alexander, and future PGA pro Clayton Heafner saw Sifford play and helped to teach him the game.

In 1939, Alexander took the 17-year-old Sifford aside and told him it might be best if he left the caddie service and stayed away from the club. Sifford was hurt, but the worst blow came when he discovered the reason for his exile. "I had gotten too good, and the members didn't like it," he told the Atlanta Constitution. "Mr. Alexander was concerned about my physical well-being."

He realized then that he wanted to make golf his full-time job. He also realized that he wanted what, to many, seemed impossible: the chance to play in golf's biggest tournaments against its best players.  As a young golfer, Sifford strung together a living. He turned to coach, directing the game of big band leader and singer Billy Eckstine. He also played, picking up impressive victories at non-PGA-sanctioned events. He dominated the Negro National Open, capturing the title six times in the 1950s.  It helped that he had the encouragement and friendship of some of the sports' most prominent Black athletes; men such as professional boxers "Sugar" Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, as well as pitcher Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson.

The same year he broke into the major leagues, Robinson counseled Sifford on the golfer's quest to make it on the PGA tour. "He asked me if I was a quitter," Sifford later recounted. "He said, 'OK 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.' I made up my mind I was going to do it. I just did it. Everything worked out perfect, I think."

Meanwhile, as the 20th-century American Civil Rights era started to take shape, the pressure was mounting on the PGA to strip out its offensive "Caucasian Only" membership clause from its bylaws. The first major hurdle was crossed in 1948 when African American golfers Bill Spider and Teddy Rhodes finished with good enough scores at the Los Angeles Open to earn automatic entry into the PGA-sponsored Richmond Open in California. But suspicious tour officials blocked their entry. They also did some legal sidestepping by getting sponsors to agree to label their tournaments "Open Invitationals" in order not to invite Black players to compete in the events. Yet, for Sifford, some important groundwork had been laid. In 1957, he made history when he qualified for the Long Beach Open but also won it, making him the first Black golfer to beat white players in a PGA co-sponsored tournament.

Four years later, he broke further ground when, under pressure from the California attorney general, the PGA permitted Sifford full membership on tour. In 1967 Sifford made history again when he won the Greater Hartford Open, the first fully sanctioned PGA event ever won by an African American. Two years later, he raised another trophy when he took the top score at the 1969 Los Angeles Open. The excitement for everyone, both black and white, around Sifford's wins was obvious. "Charlie Sifford, Negro, 46, father of two, his golf teacher, a short little man with a mustache, was a curious hero in a country club sport," Sports Illustrated after the L.A. Open. "A black lady journalist raced onto the green and kissed him. Don Newcombe, the former Dodger pitcher, ran out and grabbed his hand. And huge, happy swarms of Charlie's fans, all colors, surrounded him, tearfully delirious. Black guys who can't play the game whooped, and white guys who've never seen a country club whooped."

Sifford endured and was rewarded with victories in the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. He earned $341,345 as a PGA pro and repeatedly applied for the prestigious Master's Tournament. His application was always denied, even during the years of his tour victories. One year he led the Canadian Open after the first round. Traditionally, the winner of that tournament received an automatic invitation to the Masters. That year, however, the PGA cabled the Canadian Open that it would not necessarily invite the winner to the Master's Tournament—right in the middle of the Canadian Open.

Stung again by the blatant racism, Sifford did not win the tournament. Another time, a promise of a $100,000 bonus and a new car for anyone who hit a hole-in-one was mysteriously rescinded when Sifford managed to do just that. He sued and won his cash and car. No Black athlete played in the Master's Tournament until 1975, when Tiger Woods was born. By that time, Sifford had retired from the PGA tour and was working as a teaching pro at a country club near Cleveland, Ohio. Sifford never cared much for teaching, however.

He liked the challenge of the tournament. Therefore he happily joined the PGA Seniors Tour when it began in 1980. He toured with the Seniors for over a decade and later moved to the Super Seniors Tour for those over 60 years old. Even as a member of the Seniors Tour, Sifford often teed off against men much younger than himself, but he managed to stay among the top 50 earners from 1981 until 1989. His record with the Seniors helped boost his career earnings to over $1.2 million. In 1991 Sifford told the Arizona Republic: "Only the strong can survive out here. They counted me out 25 years ago, but I'm still here." In all, Sifford would compete in 422 PGA tournaments, coming in second twice, registering five third-place finishes, and winning nearly $350,000 in prize money. On the senior circuit, he was equally successful, winning the 1975 Senior's Championship and collecting $930,000 in winnings. More importantly, he helped pave the way for future African American golfers, including Lee Elder, the first Black to play the Masters in 1975; Calvin Peete, who notched 12 PGA victories, including The Players Championship; and Tiger Woods.

The most glaring admission from Sifford's resume is The Masters, which did not begin inviting PGA winners to the Augusta National golf course in Georgia until the 1970s. But the significance of Sifford's achievements has not been lost on the still predominantly white golf world. Sifford published his autobiography, Just Let Me Play, in 1992. In 2004, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, just the 104th athlete and first African American to receive the honor. Then, in early 2009, came the creation of the Charlie Sifford Exemption, which allows for the invitation of a player to the Northern Trust Open (formerly the Los Angeles Open) who represents the advancement of golf's diversity. Charlie Sifford died on February 4th, 2015. He lived in Kingwood, Texas, with his longtime wife, Rose.

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