Charlie Sifford, who died last week at age 92, was the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour and is widely credited with blazing the trail for Tiger Woods and every other minority in golf.
Just this past November, Sifford received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, joining Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers to receive the honor and he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1994.
It wasn’t an easy road to those accolades, though. Sifford, who learned the game by caddying, won five titles in the all-black United Golf Association, the equivalent of baseball’s Negro Leagues. But he had to relentlessly challenge the PGA’s Caucasian-only clause before it was finally rescinded in 1961. Six years later, he became the first black player to win a PGA Tour event at the 1967 Hartford Open and followed that up with a victory at the 1969 Los Angeles Open. He won the Senior PGA Championship in 1975.
But while Sifford fought through those barriers, he was never invited to the Masters as the Augusta National Golf Club deftly kept changing its criteria. He watched on TV from his home in Humble, Tex., when Woods made history by winning the 1997 Masters.
“I never will set foot inside that place either,” Sifford said at the time. “When I won a tournament, they changed the rules for who was eligible. Same thing when I won another tournament. They had a group of people in charge who didn’t see where it was beneficial to let blacks play. From the very first, I had to be better and tougher than other players, so I kept bothering them and bothering them about it. Finally, when Lee Elder won a tournament in 1974, he was in.”
Sifford, along with Elder, endured racial slurs while walking the fairway. He received at least one death threat, at the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open in the heart of the South. Sifford opened the way for players such as Calvin Peete, Jim Thorpe and Jim Dent long before Woods emerged on the scene.