Editor’s Note: The Sentinel sports staff is putting together a summer series looking at the legacies of the most influential African-American athletes in history. Today: Charlie Sifford.
Legendary golfer Lee Trevino called Charlie Sifford the, “Jackie Robinson of golf.”
That’s an apt description.
Sifford was the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour. Because of his groundbreaking achievements in the sport, Sifford was inducted into the World Gold Hall of Fame in 2004, was posthumously awarded the Old Tom Morris Award — the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s most prestigious honor — in 2007 and earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, awarded by former president Barack Obama.
Sifford grew up caddying and playing golf in Charlotte, North Carolina. He began his professional career in 1948 and competed in all-Black tournaments, as Black players were excluded from PGA Tour events. Sifford won the United Golf Association’s National Negro Open six times. In 1952, he attempted to qualify for his first PGA Tour event — the Phoenix Open, on invitation from boxer Joe Louis. He received racial abuse there and at subsequent tournaments.
In 1957, Sifford won the Long Beach Open, which was co-sponsored by the PGA. in 1959, he competed in the U.S. Open for the first time, where he would finish tied for 32nd place. He officially became part of the PGA Tour in 1961. Noteworthy wins came at the Puerto Rico Open in 1963, the Greater Hartford Open in 1967, the Los Angeles Open in 1969, the Sea Pines in 1971 and had his best finish at a major tournament — tied for 21st — at the 1972 U.S. Open. He finished in the top 60 in overall winnings in nine years on the tour and later won the 1975 PGA Seniors Championship.
Sifford’s legacy is enduring: Tiger Woods named his son, Charlie, after Sifford, and called Sifford a grandfather figure.
“I probably wouldn’t be here (without Sifford),” Woods said. “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”
“Charlie, in my opinion, is one of the most courageous men ever to play this sport,” Woods added.
Reacting to Trevino’s quote about Sifford being golf’s Jackie Robinson, Charlie didn’t yet have the perspective to see how much his actions would mean for the sport.
“If I was the Jackie Robinson of golf, I sure didn’t do a very good job of it,” Sifford said. “Jackie was followed by hundreds of great black ballplayers who have transformed their sport … But there are hardly any black kids coming up through the ranks of golf today.”
He realized his impact later on in life.
“I knew what I was getting into when I chose golf,” Sifford said. “Hell, I knew I’d never get rich and famous. All the discrimination, the not being able to play where I deserved and wanted to play — in the end, I didn’t give a damn. I was made for a tough life because I’m a tough man. And in the end, I won — I got a lot of black people playing golf.”
Some athletes don’t live long enough to see the fruits of their legacy, but Sifford did. He died of stroke complications on Feb. 3, 2015, at the age of 92. Golfers around the world reacted to his death and it’s certain Sifford’s impact will be felt for years to come.
“Man, I’m in the World Golf Hall of Fame,” Sifford said. “Don’t forget that, now. I’m in the World Golf Hall of Fame with all the players. That little old golf I played was all right, wasn’t it?”
Yes it was, Charlie.
— Contact Assistant Sports Editor Beau Troutman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BVTroutman.
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