Breaking the Last Barrier; Sifford, the First African American on Tour, Is Also the First in the Hall

By Smits, Garry | The Florida Times Union, November 14, 2004 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Last Barrier; Sifford, the First African American on Tour, Is Also the First in the Hall


Smits, Garry, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Garry Smits, The Times-Union

To this day, the thought of it causes Lee Trevino to duck his head in sorrow, at the sheer injustice of it, stacked on top of decades of injustice.

Charlie Sifford had finally realized his dream, to play on the PGA Tour. Denied the right for even an attempt to qualify because of the PGA of America's bylaws that allowed only "Caucasian" professionals until the late 1950s, Sifford earned his card in 1961, at the age of 38, and began playing the Tour.

Of course, to play the Tour meant stops in Greensboro, N.C., Dallas, Houston and Memphis, where he might be able to play, but still not be embraced.

It was in Greensboro that Trevino witnessed the worst of behavior from golf fans. In addition to racial slurs directed at Sifford as he played at the Sedgefield Country Club, fans committed acts that went to the heart of fairness in golf -- several times, when Sifford hit tee shots that drifted anywhere near the gallery, fans would grab his ball and throw it deep into the woods, or into water hazards.

Rules officials feigned ignorance and told Sifford to play the ball where he found it, if he found it at all.

"Charlie never complained," said Trevino, a Hall of Fame member and a Mexican-American who had to overcome his own racial barriers. "It was terrible treatment, but he played through it with class and dignity."

And he finished fourth in the tournament.

Slowly, Sifford was accepted, and eventually he won twice on the PGA Tour, at the 1967 Greater Hartford and the 1969 Los Angeles Open, the latter at the age of 45. Monday, at the age of 81, Sifford will again break a racial barrier when he becomes the first African-American to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

With his entry into golf's place of honor, Sifford's struggles are now validated. And the Charlotte, N.C., native is focusing on the moment, with no bitterness about the past.

"I know I had some bad days and some tough days," Sifford said after the press conference last spring when his pending induction was announced. "Like everything, it worked out fine."

Tiger Woods, who was the first player of African-American descent to win a major championship, has known Sifford since he was in high school, and has saved every letter Sifford wrote him.

"If it wasn't for Charlie and players like Teddy Rhodes, Bill Spiller and others, we wouldn't be out here," Woods told the Associated Press. "I [probably] wouldn't have been introduced to the game of golf because my dad wouldn't have played. We owe everything to him and to others like him."

Sifford, who lives near Cleveland, has reached the Hall of Fame through the Lifetime Achievement category. That's fitting, because he has led a full life in golf.

Like many players of his generation, both black and white, Sifford learned to play golf as a caddie. He could shoot even-par by the time he was 13 years old, and lugged enough bags around a Charlotte country club to earn more in a week than his father, a day laborer.

Sifford eventually latched onto a job that had become a bit of a cottage industry for black professional golfers in the 1930 and into the 1950s. Famous African-Americans in other fields, such as jazz singers and boxers, began hiring the better golfers such as Sifford, Rhodes and Spiller, to be their own personal instructors, to the point where they traveled as part of their entourage.

Sifford's student in this case was jazz musician Billy Eckstine. Boxer Joe Louis hired Rhodes. The mix of entertainers, athletes and golfers frequently came together in celebrity tournaments at golf clubs that accepted black players.

Sifford also made modest sums playing in the United Golfers Association, which was the only governing body sanctioning golf tournaments for African-Americans. He went on to win the UGA championship six times.

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