Charlie Sifford: golf’s first Black professional who paved the way for Tiger Woods

But Sifford did not give up.

Tiger Woods with Sifford during a practice round of the 2009 Bridgestone Invitational World Golf Championships.

By breaking the ‘Whites Only’ clause in golf, Sifford helped open the door for other black golfers, including the most famous black golfer of all time, Woods.

And that’s what Woods realized, saying in 2015 after Sifford’s death that he himself might not have become a professional golfer without Sifford.

“He’s like the grandpa I never had,” Woods to speak after a round of practice before the 2015 Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, the day after Sifford’s death. “It’s been a long night, and I’m sure there will be a few long days left. He fought, and what he did, the courage for him to stick with it and be here and play.

“I probably wouldn’t be here (without Sifford). My dad would never have picked this game. Who knows if the clause still exists? But he broke it.”

While Sifford was the first Black player to pass the golf record, he had someone close to him to lean on.

Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball as a player in 1947, is a friend of Sifford, and from his own experience, has passed on some advice to others. golf before he embarked on his journey into the Tournament.

“Jackie told him he’s going to have to deal with a lot of things, not react to a lot of things because once he does, it’s going to be harder and harder for the people who come after him.” , Charles Sifford, son of Charlie, recalls.

“So he keeps his upper lip taut, bites his tongue and just handles what’s presented to him because he knows if he gets it wrong, the next guy is going to be even tougher.”

Sifford studies a shot from the FHP Health Classic at the Ojai Inn Country Club in Ojai, California.

Must move

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1922, Sifford got into golf through the only route available to a black child – caddying.

But he wants to play the game – at age 13, he can shoot an 18-hole round – and not carry someone else’s bag.

However, growing up in an era of segregation, the opportunity for him to gain experience on courses did not come easily.

He finally turned pro in 1948, but – because of the so-called “whites only” provision that prevented Black players from playing with their White counterparts – Sifford was must settle to play in Black only competitions.

By the time Sifford was in his thirties, the rules of segregation were slowly being abandoned, but golf proved to be less agile in moving with the times.

“In 1959, you still had the ‘Whites Only’ provision, and it’s easy to see how it could have survived because golfing on these private clubs and they could continue to do it. contest the rules of segregation,” Nancy Churnin, author of “Charlie Takes His Shot: How Charlie Sifford Breaks the Color Barrier in Golf,” told CNN Sport.

Sifford practices on the range.

“So if you can’t get into these private clubs, how are you going to play?”

Sifford’s journey to play on the PGA Tour was not a hasty decision. It’s something he’s been working to achieve for years.

His first attempt to enter the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) Tournament in 1952 was meet with vitriol and racial pressure.

At the Phoenix Open, Sifford and his black-shirted quartet – including heavyweight boxer Joe Louis – found poop in the cup of the first hole and had to wait nearly an hour to be replaced.

Unable to showcase his abilities to all the best players, Sifford took his talents elsewhere – to huge success.

He won the United Nations Golf Association’s National Negro Open six times, securing consecutive victories from 1952 to 1956.

However, his dream was to showcase his abilities on the biggest stage in golf against the best in the industry, and that meant sacrificing some, as his son Charles, remembers again.

“When I was about 10 years old, I realized that we lived in Philadelphia, and my dad couldn’t really play in many leagues,” he told CNN Sport. “There wasn’t much exposure to golf on the East Coast so we moved to the West Coast when I was 10. And that’s when he told me that in order to be successful or have a chance at success, we had to move. in the West . “

Sifford is presented with the North South Negro Golf Tournament trophy by nightclub celebrity Nat


Baseball star Robinson is an inspirational figure and an example of what Sifford hopes to achieve in golf. But Sifford also realized he would need some legal help.

After moving to the West Coast of the United States, Sifford became friends with California Attorney General Stanley Mosk.

Mosk is Jewish and has also experienced direct discrimination. He plays golf at the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, which allows members from the Jewish community when other clubs do not allow them.

Award-winning actor Billy Crystal, in eulogy for Muhammad Ali at the great boxer’s funeral in 2016, recalling an incident that highlighted golf’s closed-door policy.

Ali invited his good friend Crystal for a run on a golf course, but didn’t realize that the club didn’t allow Jewish members.

“(Ali) emotional:” I am a black Muslim and they let me run there. Brother, I will never run there again,” Crystal recalled Ali saying.

Billy Crystal and Muhammad Ali at Audemars Piguet it was time for a celebrity watch auction for charity, held at Christie's Auction House in New York City in 2000.

Sifford’s skill impressed Mosk immediately. And the fact that someone with such ability couldn’t perform on the biggest stage infuriated him.

So Mosk set out to help Sifford in his quest to play on the PGA Tour.

As attorney general for California, Mosk was able to exert some political impact on Sifford’s battle. Mosk then served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of California for 37 years – the longest term in that court’s history.

After years of mailing and chatting, Sifford finally earned a PGA Tour player card in 1960 at the age of 39, becoming the first Black player to play on the Tour.

A year later, after considerable pressure, the PGA Tour dropped the “Whites Only” membership provision.

However, Sifford was repeatedly subjected to racist abuse from white golfers and spectators.

His son Charles also remembers hearing stories of death threats being sent to his father during those years.

Charles explains: “A few times when he was playing in the South (the US region), he had a few death threats. “People would call him at his hotel room and tell him that if he showed up at the golf course, they would kill him.

“He said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to do that because I’m showing up at the golf course.’ So he’s determined not to let anyone stand in his way and do what he wants to do and he has that drive in him. The more you try to stop him, the more he tries to succeed. .”

Illustration from

Change the wind

Despite being in his 30s on the PGA Tour, Sifford can still prove he can compete with the best golfers – despite the hostility he faces, both on and off the course.

Churnin recalls reading about hotels that wouldn’t let him stay or clubs that still wouldn’t let him eat with other professionals or use changing rooms because of the color of his skin.

However, the 1967 Greater Hartford Open – now the Visitors Championship – in Connecticut proved a turning point. “It was the first time the crowd sided with him,” according to Churnin.

And it seemed to have made all the difference, as Sifford claimed his first PGA Tour win at the event, becoming the first Black player to win a PGA Tour.

Sifford was given a check for $20,000 plus the trophy after winning the Los Angeles Open.

Although he didn’t know his dad had won because there was no online television coverage of golf like it does today, Charles recalls a palpable change in Sifford after the crucial win.

“I saw it in the papers and I’m really excited for him because it’s been a lifelong dream to be able to win the PGA Tour. And he’s relieved a lot of pressure. He seems relaxed. than knowing it he’s done it once, and there’s always the possibility that he might do it again.”

Sifford went on to win the 1969 Los Angeles Open (now The Genesis Invitational) as well as the 1975 Senior PGA Championship and became an original member of the PGA Tour Champions, where he won the Suntree Classic.

In 2004, he became the first black golfer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Sifford during the Ralph's Senior Classics tournament on October 21, 1994 at Rancho Park Golf Course in Los Angeles.

Open road

President Barack Obama also awarded Sifford the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom “for changing the course of the sport and the country he loves.”

Although Charles admits that Sifford is “very disappointed” that he doesn’t have a large following of black golfers yet, being the first black golfer on the PGA Tour is something he’s incredibly proud of.

Churnin says it’s not because of Sifford’s lack of effort or commitment that the number of blacks following in his golfing footsteps is small.

Subsequently, U.S. President Barack Obama presented Sifford with the Medal of Freedom on November 24, 2014.

“We all have different tools,” she explains. “Some of us will use words, some of us will use music; some of us will run for office, some of us will be legal scholars.

“We all come into this world and it’s our job when we come into this world to try to make the world a better place – a better, more equal, more just place. , kinder, more loving, more inclusive This is a man who used a golf club as a tool to fight for justice He knew he wouldn’t be able to see all the results. of that war in his own life.

“But he used his golf club for fairness, equality, to make the world a better place for others. And he saw the promised land from where he was. is in, because now that he’s slammed this door, he’s made it a place where others behind him can come and fulfill their dreams on the golf course.” | Charlie Sifford: golf’s first Black professional who paved the way for Tiger Woods


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