Thursday, November 3

My Brushes With Golf Pioneer Charlie Sifford

I was made for a tough life, because I’m a tough man. And in the end I won; I got a lot of black people playing golf. That’s good enough. If I had to do it over again, exactly the same way, I would.
−Charlie Sifford, Golf Digest, December 2006

CHARLIE SIFFORD WAS INDUCTED into the Southern California Golf Association Hall of Fame last week, generating many news reports and stories about the first African American to break the color barrier on the PGA Tour.

“I just wanted to play, and they couldn’t stop me, that’s all,” Sifford told one news outlet.

He won twice—at Hartford in 1967 and the L.A. Open in 1969 in a sudden-death playoff with Harold Henning—but never received an invitation to the Masters.

Because I have become acquainted with several golf legends in recent years and met up with them on the Great Grand Champions circuit, I have had several encounters with Sifford in Baltimore, Savannah and North Carolina.

In Hickory, for example, Charlie strolled into a hotel dining room and joined Jack Fleck and me for dinner. That was an interesting conversation. As self-advertised, Sifford is a tough man who sometimes uses tough language. He does not mince words.

Following is a Sifford anecdote from 2009.


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 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. Afterward I headed back to the hotel with many of the legends. 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, 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 major 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.

−The Armchair Golfer

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