Charlie Sifford Biography
Charlie Sifford has been called the "Jackie Robinson of golf." The first black man to break the color barrier in one of the nation's most elitist sports, Sifford endured humiliation, threats to his life and limb, and even mistreatment from some of his fellow pros. Nothing stopped him. He challenged a "Caucasian only" clause in the Professional Golfers' Association of America (PGA) by-laws and won, he teed off at clubs that would not allow him to use the restaurants and on fairways filled with heckling fans, and he kept his cool, knowing that his best years were behind him well before he was allowed to join the PGA. "There's not a man on this tour who could have gone through what I went through to be a golfer," Sifford admitted in the Chicago Tribune. In the Atlanta Constitution he concluded: "I still can't believe I went so long without breaking down or quitting the game."
A popular character on the Super Seniors Tour who always sports a cigar—even while playing—Sifford bristles when he is compared to Robinson, the first black baseball player in the major leagues. "If I was the Jackie Robinson of golf, I sure didn't do a very good job of it," he said in the Chicago Tribune. "Jackie was followed by a hundred great black ballplayers. I was followed by no one. There are now two blacks (Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe) playing on the regular PGA Tour. There are six of us…on the Senior Tour.… There is no place for a black man in professional golf." Sifford cited cases of prejudice that lingered more than 30 years after he was allowed to join the PGA. He also noted that black youngsters are not encouraged to play golf—and if they like the sport, are often barred from private clubs. "There are still closed doors," Sifford told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "There aren't equal opportunities. Things are far from being equal.… It's been a long, tough battle, but the job is not done. We still have a lot to overcome. We have a lot of things that need to be changed."
Charles Luther Sifford was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1922. He grew up in a racially mixed area that was surprisingly free of prejudice, but the insulation did not last long. At the age of ten he began to earn pocket money as a golf caddie at the Carolina Country Club. In those days before motorized golf carts, young men could earn wages for carrying the heavy bags of clubs from hole to hole for golfers.
The country club was closed on Mondays, so the caddies were allowed to use the golf course that day. Sifford took advantage of the situation. He found that he loved the game, and better, that he had a gift for it. Sometimes he and a few friends would sneak inside the grounds before the club opened and practice some more. By the age of thirteen, he occasionally broke par on the course. Because he had to play undetected so often, he developed a powerful and accurate drive as well as the tendency to hurry on the green—the most likely spot that he would be seen by club security. "I was always moving fast to keep from being thrown off the course," he told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "I never learned how to take my time on the greens and develop a decent stroke."
The Carolina Club owner, Sutton Alexander, and future PGA pro Clayton Heafner, saw Sifford play and helped to teach him the game. In 1939, Alexander took the 17-year-old Sifford aside and told him it might be best if he left the caddie service and stayed away from the club. Sifford was hurt, but the worst blow came when he found out the reason for his exile. "I had gotten too good, and the members didn't like it," he told the Atlanta Constitution. "Mr. Alexander was concerned about my physical well-being."
This news, combined with a minor scrape with the law, convinced Sifford to move elsewhere. He ventured north to Philadelphia, where he had some family, and there he found the public golf courses he needed to perfect his game. "I always did want to be a pro," he said in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "But the pro tour wasn't open to us [African-Americans] then." Instead, Sifford entered segregated golf tournaments and made friends among the black golfers of his day. The early 1940s found him on the United Golf Association tour, and between 1948 and 1960 he won the Negro National Open six times.
Like many other black athletes, Sifford could only dream about competing for the big money prizes alongside white athletes in the PGA. His life did offer some opportunities, however. His association with Teddy Rhodes—an African-American golfer and personal golf coach to Joe Louis—led to a job. Sifford became golf teacher and valet to Billy Eckstine, an immensely popular jazz singer. Eckstine was in great demand as an entertainer during the 1950s, and Sifford had the chance to meet some of the nation's top contemporary musicians, including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan. Eckstine himself challenged Sifford to buck the racist restrictions of the PGA. From the singer Sifford also acquired his nickname, "Little Horse," a memory he preserves today by wearing a golden horse charm on a chain around his neck.
Sifford first met Jackie Robinson at the Negro National Open in 1947. Robinson too encouraged Sifford to challenge the PGA, but the baseball star knew just how tough a fight Sifford would face. Robinson advised patience, and Sifford agreed. "I think it had to be done right," Sifford told the Sacramento Bee. "Jackie Robinson told me not to do it until I was ready." As early as 1953 Sifford began to try to enter PGA events. On one occasion, in Phoenix, Arizona, he and three other black players trying to qualify reached the green on the first hole and found the cup filled with human waste. Fellow golf pro Charles Owens told the Sacramento Bee that Sifford "went through tar in hell. What he went through was like being tied down in a room with a spigot going 'drip, drip, drip.' It'll drive you crazy. But Charlie's too tough to go crazy."
Sifford remembered those days too. "In 1955, I qualified for a tournament," he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "At the time, black players were only able to play in Canada, Chicago, or Los Angeles. I shot a 68 and got in the tournament, but I couldn't get in the locker room. I knew the risks, but I went ahead." Sifford won the Long Beach Open in 1957, and thereafter he simply could not be ignored. Even so, the stodgy PGA tried to thwart him when he sued for membership, moving tournaments from one state to another while clinging tightly to the "Caucasian only" clause.
A California lawsuit caused the PGA to strike the clause in 1960, and Sifford got an official PGA Approved Players card for a one-year trial. Renewal depended upon his ability to win among the ranks of whites. He was almost 40 at the time and was thus a good bit older than the average PGA golfer. Nevertheless, he managed to remain among the top 60 money winners for a whole decade, from 1960 until 1969.
"The first official tournament I played in with my card was in Greensboro, North Carolina, and that was hell," Sifford remembered in the Houston Post. "The first day of the tournament I led it with a 68. And that night I got people calling me up in the hotel, threatening my life, saying what they were going to do to me if I showed up for the next round. I just told them whatever they were planning to do, be prepared to do it because I still planned to tee off at 9:30." He won second place in that tournament and pocketed $700. On other occasions he was heckled ruthlessly by fans, who called him "nigger" and "boy" and suggested he return to caddying. Several times he was turned away from the gates of private clubs despite his official PGA status. Often he had to change clothes in his car or eat lunch in the locker room because the dining facilities were segregated. Sifford admitted in the Sacramento Bee: "It's hell, naturally, when a black man breaks into a white man's world."
Sifford endured, and he was rewarded with victories in the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. He earned $341,345 as a PGA pro and repeatedly applied for the prestigious Masters Tournament. His application was always denied, even during the years of his tour victories. One year he led the Canadian Open after the first round. Traditionally, the winner of that tournament received an automatic invitation to the Masters. That year, however, the PGA cabled the Canadian Open that it would not necessarily invite the winner to the Masters Tournament—right in the middle of the Canadian Open. Stung yet again by the blatant racism, Sifford did not win the tournament. Another time, a promise of a $100,000 bonus and a new car for anyone who hit a hole-in-one was mysteriously rescinded when Sifford managed to do just that. He sued and won his cash and car.
No black athlete played in the Masters Tournament until 1975, the year Tiger Woods was born. By that time Sifford had retired from the PGA tour and was working as a teaching pro at a country club near Cleveland, Ohio. Sifford never cared much for teaching, however. He liked the challenge of the tournament. Therefore he happily joined the PGA Seniors Tour when it began in 1980. He toured with the Seniors for more than a decade and later moved to the Super Seniors Tour for those over 60 years old. Even as a member of the Seniors Tour Sifford often teed off against men much younger than himself, but he managed to stay among the top 50 earners from 1981 until 1989. His record with the Seniors helped to boost his career earnings to better than $1.2 million. In 1991 Sifford told the Arizona Republic: "Only the strong can survive out here. They counted me out 25 years ago, but I'm still here."
Sifford's 1992 autobiography, Just Let Me Play, recounts in vivid detail his years of trial in the battle against racism. Although one of the better-known pros, especially among the Seniors Tour, he had few product endorsement offers; his first came from the Toyota company. "For 35 years this cigar has been my trademark, but I've never had a cigar sponsor," he noted in the San Francisco Chronicle. Sifford also laments the lack of young black talent rising in golf's ranks. "Blacks who go to school these days are taught football, basketball and baseball, but not golf." He predicted that fewer, not more, blacks would become PGA golfers within the next decade. Indeed, in 2004 Tiger Woods was the only American black of African descent on the PGA tour. Woods related to Golf International that "If it wasn't for Charlie and players like Teddy Rhodes, Bill Spiller and others, we wouldn't be here. I certainly wouldn't probably have been introduced to the game of golf because my dad wouldn't have played. Without Charlie's diligence and dedication…we owe everything to him and to others like him."
His cigar ever clamped in his mouth, Sifford claimed that he is not bitter, even though much work remains to be done for the proper integration of golf. Married for more than fifty years, he resides in Kingwood, Texas, a suburb of Houston. The "Jackie Robinson of golf" continued to play the Super Seniors Tour into his seventies. If not bitter, he did sound just a bit wistful in the Lexington Herald-Leader when he said: "Sometimes, I think what it would have been like if I could have played the tour when I was at my best. Really, I think it's unbelievable. I know I could have done well. I know I would have been up there with the best. Don't get me wrong. Golf has been good to me. It just could have been a whole lot better." He added: "But, you can't dwell on that. It's gone. It's not important, I guess, that I didn't make it real big. It's important that I made it. At least it did open the door for a few more blacks." Indeed Sifford has opened doors and inspired others to follow him. Tiger Woods' father Earl told Golf International that Sifford "took the punishment, the ridicule and he still persevered. For that, he should always be remembered. Because nobody else did it but him. He was the first one."
Sifford's accomplishments were honored in 2004 when he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. As the first black golfer to be so rewarded, Sifford remarked upon accepting his induction: "It's a wonderful thing that a little black man from Charlotte, N.C., a caddie, can go through all the obstacles he went through and wind up being inducted into the Hall of Fame," according to the Tampa Bay Online. "This makes me believe they accepted me as one of the professional golfers."
Just Let Me Play (autobiography), Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Sifford, Charlie, Just Let Me Play, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Arizona Republic, November 10, 1991.
Atlanta Constitution, June 8, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1992.
Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee), June 2, 1992.
Houston Post, January 6, 1991.
Lexington Herald-Leader, August 28, 1986.
Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1990.
Sacramento Bee, July 1, 1988.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 14, 1987.
Upscale, February 1993.
"Charlie Sifford Breaks Hall of Fame Barrier," Golf International, http://www.golfinternationalmag.co.uk/News/121104_4.htm (January 14, 2005).
"Charlie Sifford Is Right Where He Belongs," Tampa Bay Online, http://golf.tbo.com/golf/MGBAVWW7D3E.html (January 13, 2005).
—Mark Kram and
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