Charlie Sifford, 1922-2015

The snowy view from my window the day after Charlie Sifford died at age 92 isn’t much more white than the competitive-golf landscape that largely kept him and other blacks away until 1961, when the PGA’s Caucasian-only clause was finally removed.

There may be no more fitting title to a memoir than Sifford’s 1992 Just Let Me Play, because for so long that simple desire was stopped by the barbed wire of prejudice.

Brave African-American golfers before Sifford such as Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes had lobbied for the same opportunity, but their window had closed by the time California attorney general Stanley Mosk applied the pressure that led to institutional change. As it was Sifford was bearing down on 40 when he became the first black allowed to join the tour, when he effectively became golf’s Jackie Robinson and blazed a trail for others to follow.

Access didn’t always equal acceptance. A native North Carolinian like Sifford, I was old enough to have gone to segregated schools for a while but not old enough to have witnessed the full fury of racial hatred, and it was painful to learn what Sifford went through when he played his first tour event in the South, the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open.

Sifford was treated well by those who invited him to play in the GGO, but after he shot a first-round 68 there was a telephoned death threat and persistent taunts and slurs from a group of fans the next day until police intervened on the back nine. It might have been one of the most formidable even-par 72s anyone has ever shot, and Sifford, despite the heavy undercurrent of tension, finished fourth in the event.

As Sifford later wrote: “… I felt a larger victory. I had come through my first southern tournament with the worst kind of social pressures and discrimination around me, and I hadn’t cracked. I hadn’t quit.”

He would win two PGA Tour events, the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open in 1969 — both of them coming after Pete Brown became the first black to win a PGA-sanctioned event, in 1964. (Sifford’s 1957 Long Beach Open win wasn’t recognized as official because it was 54 holes.) A cadre of good friends among white tour pros including Bob Goalby, Larry Mowry and Don January provided a balm against all the slights and stares Sifford would get for years as a rare golfer of color on the biggest stages.

In 2004 Sifford was the first African-American to be selected for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Last November President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Lots of golfers get rich and find a measure of fame. Not as many become part of history. Fewer still make a difference. Sifford, enduring what would have broken many, did. Now that most of the fences are down and many of the attitudes have changed, golfers of any color who chase their dreams as hard as he did are going to do just fine.

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