By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
Charlie Sifford, who paved the way for many black golfers, is just beginning to receive honors for his struggle.
Charlotte, N.C. – Sixty years ago, a black man could not set foot on this golf course. Today the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course is named for one who led the way.
On a bright June morning, Sifford sits at a table in the clubhouse grill, a cane leaning against his chair. “I just need this for balance,” he says. Like many legendary figures, Sifford is smaller than you might imagine, but his hands are large, his fingers as big as his cigars, and there’s a hint of the massive chest that helped him slam out tee shots on the PGA Tour not so long ago.
Bill Smith, the head professional, hurries to the table. “What would you like, Dr. Sifford?” Smith says. We offer to buy Sifford’s lunch but Smith says with a laugh, “Oh, Charlie knows he can have anything he wants here.” Sifford settles on a bottle of water.
A group of older black men approach the table to shake Sifford’s hand. “How ya’ doin’, Dr. Sifford,” one says. “Happy birthday, Dr. Sifford,” another says, removing his cap.
Sifford turned 89 the day before, June 2. “Yeah, I’m 47 now,” he says with a chuckle. The men laugh but they are shy too, and they stand back a bit, showing the same respect they would reserve for an aging war hero. These men know a lot about that battle.
Charlie Sifford traveled a hard road to golf glory, a road littered with land mines of prejudice, and now he is back in Charlotte, where he was born in 1922.
Sifford began playing golf the only way a black kid growing up in the 1930s could, as a caddie. Earning 60 cents a day, he gave 50 cents to his mother and kept 10 cents to buy cigars. By the age of 13, he could shoot par. Clayton Heafner, a fine white player who helped a number of young black men, taught Sifford golf technique.
“What did Heafner teach you that stayed with you?” we asked.
“All of it,” Sifford said.
At 17, Sifford was forced to flee Charlotte to live with relatives in Philadelphia.
“A drunk began calling me names and saying things about my mother,” he explained. “I picked up a Coca-Cola bottle and hit him upside the head. That’s when I left North Carolina. I took a freight [train] to Philly with another caddie, Walter Fergus. No plans. Just get out of town.”
Sifford would fight racial battles for the next 40 years.
Golf has long struggled with issues of equality, and when Sifford began playing professionally, in the 1950s, the PGA Tour had the “Caucasian-only clause.” From 1934 to 1961, the Caucasian-only clause was a part of The PGA of America’s by-laws that prevented non-whites from membership, and from competing on the PGA Tour. The clause was removed at the 1961 PGA Annual Meeting.
As he talks about his life, Sifford is at first cheerful. Then the hard questions come and he drops his head. He’s hesitant, his words are hard to hear, and he sinks lower in his chair.
Sifford remembers. He saw Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes kept out of the game except for limited invitations. Unlike his compatriot Pete Brown, a sort of happy traveler who answered insults with a laugh, Sifford endured injustice grimly and fought his battles essentially alone.
His 1992 autobiography, “Just Let Me Play,” written with James Gullo, revealed the hurts. Gullo tells a well-researched story and the prejudice is a constant.
But Sifford’s book is less a rage than it is a slow burn. The stories are many, such as when, in the 1950s, five blacks were convicted of trespassing on a public course in Greensboro, N.C. When a court ruled that a public course had to be open to anyone, the city leased the course to a private company that instituted new rules barring blacks. The cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and Charleston, S.C., all used similar ploys to block blacks from public courses. And those golfers were just trying to play recreational games. Sifford was fighting for his right to work on the PGA Tour.
In 1957, Sifford won the Long Beach Open, not an official Tour event, but the field was stacked with touring pros. Still, he wasn’t allowed to compete in the Tour event the following week. Two years later he met Stanley Mosk, California attorney general, who helped open the door. Mosk knew that Sifford was barred from PGA tournaments in his state, so he presented Sifford as a California resident whose civil rights were being violated and asked the Tour to show reasons other than race why Sifford was denied membership.
The PGA had no choice and in 1960 made Sifford an approved tournament player, the first black to win the designation. Just a few months from turning 38, Sifford was officially a rookie on the PGA Tour. He didn’t have many good years left as a player.
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