February 9th, 2015
Golfing great Gary Player, when introducing his friend and fellow golfer Charles Luther Sifford at his induction into the 2004 World Golf Hall of Fame, said some people called Sifford mean.
Other people called him ornery and bitter.
But, Player said, none of his friends or fellow golfers did.
The more I read about the first black golfer to hold a PGA Tour card, the more I understand why he may have been that way and may have had the right to be. After all, how would you feel if there were organized efforts in place to keep you from fully using your God-given gifts?
Sifford, the man who broke the color barrier in golf, died Feb. 3, just three months after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the man who broke the color barrier in the White House. He was 92.
I didn’t know about him. Lee Elder was the first black golfer I ever heard of. But the more I read about Sifford, the more I understood why he would have a chip on his shoulder.
Born in Charlotte, N.C., Sifford began caddying at the Carolina Country Club for 60 cents a day when he was about 10. He taught himself the game on days when the club was closed.
After serving in the Pacific during World War II, he returned to the States thinking he could make a living as a professional golfer. That was not to be. Not for a long time, anyway.
Sifford was not the only black golfer at that time. In fact, there were more black golfers who could have qualified for the PGA Tour in the 1940s than there are now.
That didn’t bode well with members of the PGA. In 1943, members inserted “Caucasians only from North or South America” into qualifications for membership.
Sifford had to play on the black circuit and in Canada. He won six Negro National Open titles on that circuit, five of them in a row, 1952-56.
In 1952, during the Phoenix Open, where black and white golfers could play, there was human feces in the cup when he reached the first green. No one seemed to know how it got there.
On a traditionally quiet golf course, it became routine to have people yell out just as he began his swing, or to kick his ball away or hide it under trash. The N-word and other racial slurs became a part of the game, right along with death threats and intimidation.
I would think appearing mean was his defensive mechanism. He never went too far, though.
In 2000, Sifford told The Associated Press, “If I hadn’t acted like a professional when they sent me out, if I did something crazy, there would never be any blacks playing. I toughed it out. I’m proud of it. All those people were against me, and I’m looking down on them now.”
In 1959, he gained the attention of California Attorney General Stanley Mosk. Mosk demanded to know why the PGA would not allow Sifford to play on tour if it were not just because of his race. The PGA gave in and approved Sifford as a tournament player in 1960. He became a rookie that year at age 39.
Still, even with the card, doors didn’t swing open.
“To give you an example,” Sifford said in a 1986 interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, Sifford said he kept playing and trying to play. “…I just wouldn’t quit. I couldn’t let them win. I just wanted things to change. Change has come slow.”
Sifford won the Greater Hartford Open in 1967, which usually included an invitation to play in the Masters. No invitation came. In 1969, he won the Los Angeles Open, which also usually brought with it an invitation to the Masters. Again, none came.
“When I won a tournament, they changed the rules for who was eligible,” Sifford said in 1997. “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.”
Elder became the first black golfer to play the Masters in 1975. Sifford never played in the Masters.
When Tiger Woods, who called Sifford his grandfather, won his first Masters in 1997, Sifford watched on TV from his home in Texas. Sifford said he would never set foot in Augusta and he didn’t.
Sifford became one of the founding members of the PGA Senior Tour, where he finally earned some of the money he should have in his prime.
“I don’t know how I made it sometimes,” Sifford said in a Herald-Leader interview. “The good Lord was with me, I guess. Sometimes it felt like he was the only one on my side.”
“Sometimes, I think what it would have been like if I could have played the tour when I was at my best,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. Golf has been good to me. It just could have been a whole lot better.
“But, you can’t dwell on that,” he continued. “It’s gone. It’s not important, I guess, that I didn’t make it real big. It’s important that I made it. At least, it did open the door for a few more blacks.”
Sifford never blamed the players; he blamed the golf establishment.
When Sifford died last week, Woods tweeted: “Terrible loss for golf and me personally. My grandfather is gone and we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man.”
Sifford may have been ornery and bitter because of what happened to him. I just hope the Hall of Fame induction and the Medal of Honor ceremony made up for a lack of accolades during his prime. Maybe, before he died, those old wounds were healed.