By Jim Davis
One of the world’s most influential golfers was born 100 years ago on June 2. His name would be on the tip of our tongues but for one thing – he happened to be Black at a time when golf’s establishment was solidly, unapologetically, white. Mr. Charles L. Sifford is one golfer whose acquaintance you should definitely make.
Charlie Sifford, who passed away on Feb. 3, 2014 at 92 years old, battled through years of endemic racism, through all the slings and arrows of hatred to finally receive a slate of honors but one, one that failed to come his way and the one he wanted most, a Masters invitation.
Click here to open a PDF from the March 2014 Bulletin that marked the passing of Charlie Sifford.
Sifford was not a quitter. He promised Jackie Robinson, to whom he was often compared, that he would never quit despite the slurs and the death threats. He followed the advice and accepted the help of such early stars as Teddy Rhodes and Clayton Heafner. He fought hard and won trophies galore on the United Golfers Association (UGA) tour and won the Negro National Open from 1952-56 and 1960.
Tiger Woods named his son Charlie after him and referred to Sifford as “the Grandpa I never had,” and that, without Sifford, “I probably wouldn’t be here. My dad would have never have picked up the game. Who knows if the clause would still exist or not? But he broke it down.”
Sifford finally broke through on the PGA tour with a win at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open Invitational, and took a second PGA tour victory at the 1969 Los Angeles Open, winning with a birdie on the first extra playoff hole.
In 2004, Sifford became the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He chose Hall of Fame member South African Gary Player to present him for induction. On June 22, 2006, he received an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews as a Doctor of Laws. He also received the 2007 Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), the GCSAA’s highest honor.
In 2009, the Northern Trust Open created an exemption for a player who represents the advancement of diversity in golf; it is named in honor of Sifford and is referred to as the Charlie Sifford Exemption.
In 2011, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation changed the name of Revolution Park Golf Course to Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course at Revolution Park.
President Barack Obama awarded him the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
If you love golf, on June 2, take a moment to reflect on the life and times of one Charles L. Sifford, who did so much to make the game available to all persons and in doing so, represented how the best of us can prevail against our worst shortcomings as a nation.
Click here to visit the World Golf Hall of Fame and a page of stories about Sifford.
Click here to see a story from the New Pittsburgh Courier on Sifford, including an interview with his son, Charlie.
Sifford’s 1992 book about his experiences, Just Let Me Play, now fetches upwards of $400 in collectible condition.
Other books documenting the story of African Americans in golf include Uneven Lies, by Pete McDaniel (2000, The American Golfer); and A Course of Their Own, by John H. Kennedy (2000, Andrews McMeel Publishing.)