“I’LL WATCH YOUR CLUBS, CHARLIE.”
We’re at the Holiday Inn Express yesterday outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, and Charlie Sifford can’t get into his room. There’s a problem with the key card. He heads down the hall toward the front desk.
I know how guarded these pros feel about their tools, even though Charlie didn’t play this day. He recently had open heart surgery.
“Thanks,” he said, knowing I’d keep an eye on his TaylorMade clubs until he returned.
Earlier Charlie and a dozen or so other legends had participated in a special pro-am prior to the Rex Hospital Open, this week’s Nationwide Tour event. I attended, spending time with the old pros. Afterwards, I headed back to the hotel with many of the legends to have dinner with Jack Fleck.
I was waiting for them when they gingerly stepped out of the van, a who’s who of 1950s and 1960s tour golf: Doug Ford, Billy Casper, Miller Barber, Charlie Sifford, Dow Finsterwald, Bob Goalby, Howie Johnson and Jack Fleck.
I had told Charlie how much I enjoyed Uneven Fairways, the Golf Channel documentary that featured him and other black players who faced the color barrier in golf. Charlie broke through when he became the first African American member of the PGA Tour in 1961. Now he’s in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Charlie returned with a new key and opened the door to Room 122. “I’ll get your clubs, Charlie.” I didn’t want this 86-year-old man who had just had majory surgery to lift his clubs off the cart and place them in his room. I grabbed them and his shoes and set them down inside the door.
It was a small gesture − but also a privilege − to help this small, tough man who had endured so many threats and indignities throughout his career. I was grateful to have a few moments with the Jackie Robinson of golf.
Turned pro: 1948
Birthplace: Charlotte, North Carolina
PGA Tour wins: 2
Senior Tour wins: 8
World Golf Hall of Fame induction: 2004
−The Armchair Golfer
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(Image: El Rio Golf Club)