Charlie Sifford broke barriers all his life. He was the first African-American to play the PGA and the first to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
There was a time when none of this seemed possible. Jackie Robinson’s courageous integration of Major League Baseball in 1946 is widely and appropriately credited for changing the American sports landscape forever. One year later, toughened by a tour of duty in the Army’s 24th Infantry, another young black man named Charlie Sifford told Robinson he planned to follow in his footsteps and compete in golf, a sport where the ball and the participants were equally as white.
"If you try hard enough, anything can happen."
“He asked me if I was a quitter,” Sifford recalled. “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.”
It was Sifford who opened professional golf, a game with a “Caucasian only” rule, to blacks more than four decades ago. Without him, Tiger Woods would probably not have been able to make his own impact on the sports world. “He has my respect and my gratitude for the sacrifices he made to open the doors to this great game to people of color,” Woods said.
Born June 2, 1922, Sifford started in golf the only way a black kid growing up in North Carolina could in the 1930s – as a caddie. He earned 60 cents a day and gave his mom 50 cents and kept 10 cents to buy stogies, which became his trademark on the course. By 13, he could shoot par golf.
Sifford’s skin was tough enough to endure racial injustice and epithets. At the 1952 Phoenix Open, Sifford and his all-black foursome, which included the boxer Joe Louis, found excrement in the cup on the first hole, and waited nearly an hour for the cup to be replaced.
Despite all the insults, Sifford lived up to the standard set by Robinson. Sifford fought his battle essentially alone; he didn’t have teammates. He broke barriers by breaking par. He won the National Negro Open five straight times from 1952-1956, all the while pushing golf’s color boundaries. Not until 1960, when he was 39, did he earn a PGA player card. A year later, under pressure from the California attorney general, the PGA of America, which then ran the Tour, dropped its “Caucasian only” membership clause.
Sifford’s best years already had passed, but he still won twice on the PGA Tour, at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. “If you try hard enough,” Sifford said, “anything can happen.” Sifford, who won the 1975 PGA Seniors’ Championship, went on to become an original member of the Champions Tour, where he won the Suntree Classic.
In 2004, Sifford became the first black golfer to break into another exclusive club. Of the 100 previously enshrined at the World Golf Hall of Fame, none was black. He was selected via the Lifetime Achievement category for his contributions to the game. “Tonight we honor a man not just for what he accomplished on the course, but for the course he chose in life,” South African Gary Player said as he introduced his long-time friend at the induction ceremony in St. Augustine, Fla.
Better late, than never. That’s been the story of Charlie Sifford’s life. “Man, I’m in the Hall of Fame, the World Hall of Fame,” he said in his induction ceremony speech. “Don’t forget that now! I’m in the World Hall of Fame with all the players. That little old golf I played was all right, wasn’t it?”