The Legend of Charlie Sifford

Charlie Sifford, the first black golfer to play on the PGA tour, is inducted into the Southern California Golf Association’s Hall of Fame./Photo/Dennis J. Freeman

By Dennis J. Freeman

Charlie Sifford says he holds no grudges towards the folks who did him wrong because of the color of his skin. He isn’t bitter about not being allowed to participate at the prestigious Masters because of the Professional Golf Association’s “Caucasian Clause” that once barred non-whites from playing in PGA tournaments and events.

Considered to be the Jackie Robinson of his sport, Sifford, who broke golf’s color barrier in 1964 by becoming the first African American to play in a PGA-sponsored tournament, said he is not upset about the glass ceiling he and other blacks received. Now 89, Sifford said the slight was part of the times he grew up in. But that wasn’t enough to stop him from playing golf.

The obvious racial hurdles Sifford encountered on a daily basis during the segregated Jim Crow era weren’t enough to deter him from excelling on the golf course. Sifford set the standard for Tiger Woods and other African Americans to do thing on the golf course when he broke new ground as he became the first black golfer to win a PGA event, capturing the Greater Hartford Open in 1967.

Sifford would go on to win other high-profile PGA tournaments, including the L. A. Open and the PGA Seniors’ Championship. But unlike Robinson, who have gone on to worldwide glory from adoring fans everywhere, Sifford hasn’t quite received the full recognition of the impact he’s had on professional golf.  Sifford has been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, the first African American to receive this honor.

Yet the platitudes and appreciation of Sifford’s contributions to golf have been diluted either by ignorance or apathy. He isn’t surrounded by a large entourage. He doesn’t have a burly bodyguard next to him as some sports stars do to keep fans at bay. For such an iconic sports figure, Sifford is as anonymous as an upstart golfer trying to snag his first PGA card.

But the weight of Sifford’s accomplishments far outshines many who have taken up the sport of golf.

Charlie Sifford and Amy Alcott stand by their likeness at the SCGA Hall of Fame luncheon honoring them./Photo/Dennis J. Freeman

The folks that run the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA) know all about Sifford’s impact on the golf game and chose to honor the golf legend by inducting Safford, along with Amy Alcott into the SCGA Hall of Fame.  Sifford spent a good chunk of his time living in the Los Angeles area when he played. At the time Sifford played golf, Southern California much more open to accepting people of color than that of the segregated south.

Though he harbors no ill feeling towards the people that kept him away from ever playing in the Masters, golf’s ultimate prize, Sifford is emphatic about missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime.

“If they didn’t want me, I didn’t want to be there,” Sifford said. “They invite whoever plays.”

Some of the scars of exclusion and the overt racism he endured still haunt Safford today.  They follow him.  And even though he suggests there is no bitterness, some things still hurt. They hurt so much that Sifford would rather not talk about them or entertain questions about those painful memories.

“There’s quite a few. I don’t like to talk about them,” Sifford said. “Golf wasn’t ready for me. But I was ready for golf. All of that was set by the Professional Golf Association. They set those standards. That’s what we had to go by.”

Asked if the Masters extended him an invitation today, Sifford slowly shook his head and said, “I don’t think so,” a signal that he isn’t quite removed from that stain of rejection.

“I would appreciate it if they invited me out,” Sifford said. “They didn’t invite me when I could play. I can’t play now. So I don’t want to go.”

 

 

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