Golf legend Sifford broke PGA’s color barrier in 1961
Charlie Sifford was banned from being a PGA member because of its Caucasian-only clause when he played the Rubber City Open in 1958 at Firestone. He was paired with an 18-year-old amateur from Ohio playing in a PGA Tour event for the first time.
That was Jack Nicklaus, who went on to set the modern standard of greatness in golf with 18 majors.
He considers what Sifford achieved to be equally important.
Facing racial taunts and death threats, Sifford broke the color barrier in golf by becoming the first black member of the PGA in 1961. He won twice on the PGA Tour and was rewarded for his courage later in life as the first black inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. In November, he joined Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only golfers to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In a letter supporting Sifford’s nomination for the Medal of Freedom, Nicklaus wrote, “His legacy is not about the records he broke, but the barriers he broke.”
Sifford died Tuesday night at age 92.
President Barack Obama expressed his condolences on the death of Sifford, who he said faced “indignity and injustice even as he faced the competition.”
“Though his best golf was already behind him, he proved that he belonged, winning twice on tour and blazing a trail for future generations of athletes in America,” Obama said in a statement. “I was honored to award Charlie the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year — for altering the course of the sport and the country he loved. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, his friends, and his fans.”
Sifford’s influence stretched from Nicklaus and Palmer to Tiger Woods, who often referred to Sifford as his “grandpa.”
“Terrible loss for golf and me personally. My grandfather is gone and we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man. I’ll miss u Charlie,” Woods tweeted on Wednesday.
Woods often has said if not for Sifford, Teddy Rhodes, Bill Spiller, Lee Elder and other blacks who only wanted a chance to play, he might have not have taken up the game.
“But he fought, and what he did, the courage it took for him to stick with it and be out here and play, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Woods said about Sifford when he finished his pro-am round Wednesday at Torrey Pines. “My dad would never have picked up the game. Who knows if the clause would still exist or not. But he broke it down.”
Sifford learned the game as caddie in North Carolina, where he earned 60 cents a day. He would give 50 cents to his mother and use the other 10 cents to buy a cigar, which became his trademark later in his career.