Charlie Sifford was banned from being a PGA member because of its Caucasian-only clause when he played the Rubber City Open in 1958 at Firestone. He was paired with an 18-year-old amateur from Ohio playing in a PGA Tour event for the first time.
That was Jack Nicklaus, who went on to set the modern standard of greatness in golf with 18 majors.
He considers what Sifford achieved to be equally important.
Facing racial taunts and death threats, Sifford broke the color barrier in golf by becoming the first black member of the PGA in 1961. He won twice on the PGA Tour and was rewarded for his courage later in life as the first Black inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. In November, he joined Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only golfers to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In a letter supporting Sifford’s nomination for the Medal of Freedom, Nicklaus wrote, “His legacy is not about the records he broke, but the barriers he broke.”
Sifford died Tuesday night at age 92.
President Barack Obama expressed his condolences on the death of Sifford, who he said faced “indignity and injustice even as he faced the competition.”
“Though his best golf was already behind him, he proved that he belonged, winning twice on tour and blazing a trail for future generations of athletes in America,” Obama said in a statement. “I was honored to award Charlie the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year — for altering the course of the sport and the country he loved. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, his friends, and his fans.”
Sifford’s influence stretched from Nicklaus and Palmer to Tiger Woods, who often referred to Sifford as his “grandpa.”
“Terrible loss for golf and me personally. My grandfather is gone and we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man. I’ll miss u Charlie,” Woods tweeted on Wednesday.
Woods often has said if not for Sifford, Teddy Rhodes, Bill Spiller, Lee Elder and other Blacks who only wanted a chance to play, he might have not have taken up the game.
“But he fought, and what he did, the courage it took for him to stick with it and be out here and play, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Woods said about Sifford when he finished his pro-am round Wednesday at Torrey Pines. “My dad would never have picked up the game. Who knows if the clause would still exist or not. But he broke it down.”
Sifford learned the game as caddie in North Carolina, where he earned 60 cents a day. He would give 50 cents to his mother and use the other 10 cents to buy a cigar, which became his trademark later in his career.
He won five straight national titles in the all-Black United Golf Association before taking on the PGA. There were some events that Sifford could play without being a PGA member, but that didn’t make it easy. In the Phoenix Open, he once told of finding human feces in the cup on his first hole.
But he fought on with the advice of Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball. Sifford told of meeting Robinson in his book, “Just Let Me Play.” Robinson asked if he was a quitter, and Sifford told him that he wasn’t.
“He said, ‘If you’re not a quitter, you’re probably going to experience some things that will make you want to quit,'” Sifford wrote.
Sifford asked Gary Player to present him at his 2004 induction to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Player told Golf Channel on Wednesday that he kept in touch with Sifford in recent months and the message Sifford left him was, “Learn to accept adversity. Keep fighting.”
“He paved the way,” Player said. “Having had similar lives to him, there is one thing that stands out in my mind. Evil will prevail unless good men make a stand. And that applies to Charlie Sifford.”
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem went to Washington in November when Sifford received the Medal of Freedom. Sifford was playing the Champions Tour — he won the 1975 Senior PGA Championship five years before the 50-and-older circuit was created — when Finchem first joined the tour.
“It’s a real loss because he was a pioneer, he suffered all kinds of difficulty playing as an African-American, and it’s just a sad day,” Finchem said. “We all ought to take a minute and remember the impact that he had on the game.”
Nicklaus said it was a day to mourn Sifford’s loss and celebrate what he achieved. He said of that Rubber City Open in 1958 that he could not have had a better person at his side than Sifford, who he described as “kind, gracious and a true gentleman.”
“Charlie helped pave the way for my tour career, but in the much larger picture, he helped pave the way for so many in the game of golf,” Nicklaus said. “Charlie led by example, handling himself with great class and dignity inside and outside the ropes. Because of steadfast pioneers like Charlie, the PGA Tour I joined in 1962 was a tour that welcomed all. We can’t underestimate the impact Charlie’s career has had on the face of golf today.”