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Charlie Sifford - April HOF Member of the Month

By Helen Ross, 04/23/21, 11:00AM EDT

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I didn’t know what would happen. Would they threaten me? Would they try...

He knew it wasn’t going to be easy. After all, this was April of 1961 and Charlie Sifford was about to become the first Black man to play in a PGA-sanctioned golf tournament in the segregated South.

     “I didn’t want to go,” Sifford told the Greensboro News & Record in 2001. “I didn’t know what would happen. Would they threaten me? Would they try to run me off? Would they shoot me? I didn’t know.”

     His wife, Rose, persuaded him to accept the invitation offered by tournament chairman Mose Kiser Jr. and the sponsoring Greensboro Jaycees. Dr. George Simkins, a local dentist who was president of the NAACP at the time, had suggested to Kiser that Sifford be included in the field. 

     This Greater Greensboro Open was being played 14 months after four North Carolina A&T students staged the sit-in at the downtown Woolworth that became a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. The Jaycees recognized the time was right, but that doesn’t mean Jim Crow wasn’t still a part of the landscape – far from it. 

     Sedgefield Country Club, which was hosting the tournament, would not allow Sifford to enter through the clubhouse. He had to go through the pro shop, instead. Sifford couldn’t eat in the main dining room, either, while home for his first two nights in Greensboro was a dormitory room at A&T, not a hotel.

     On the golf course, Sifford had a police escort, and despite the distractions, the determined pro managed to shoot a 68 that gave him a one-stroke lead after the first round. When he finished, reporters from the Washington Post and New York Times, among others, quizzed Sifford on how he’d been treated.

     “Well, he said, ‘Just a minute: I’m leading this golf tournament and you’re supposed to be asking me about my round. Ask me the questions you would ask me if I was leading a tournament someplace else,’” Kiser told the News & Record in 2001. 

     “Then he turned to us and said, ‘Guess I (screwed) up their stories, didn’t I?”

     Unfortunately, though, those questions became more relevant after Sifford, who was born in Charlotte, received a threatening phone call that night. 

     “It was something about hanging me from those trees at Sedgefield if I did it again,” Sifford told the Raleigh News & Observer in 1985. “I was afraid before the tournament started. Didn’t know what was going to happen.”

     A dozen hecklers greeted Sifford on the first tee when he started the second round, yelling racial epithets and obscenities. But Sifford was nothing if not focused, and his 72 left him just two strokes off the pace set by Billy Maxwell and Mike Souchak. He eventually finished fourth.

     All the while, Sifford was acutely aware that he was playing for more than himself. He was playing for all the other Black pros, guys like Bill Spiller and Teddy Rhodes and Pete Brown and Lee Elder and Jim Dent, who wanted their shot, too. Sifford more than proved his mettle, too, and later that year, the PGA eliminated the Caucasian-only clause in its bylaws. 

     “Sometimes I think I did as much for the game as Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus,” Sifford told the Greensboro News & Record in 2001. “Nothing was handed to me. I had to keep fighting. Because if I didn’t, maybe no one would have had the chance after me.”

     Sifford would go on to win the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and 1969 Los Angeles Open, now known as THE NORTHERN TRUST, which annually awards an exemption in his name to a golfer who represents diversity in golf. He also won six National Negro Opens, including five in a row at one point, and the 1975 PGA Seniors Championship.

     A native of Charlotte, Sifford learned the game as a caddie at Carolina Country Club, working for 60 cents a bag – all but a dime of which went to his mother. The teenager often used the rest for buying the cigars that became his trademark. Clayton Heafner, who, like Sifford, is a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, was among the future pro’s mentors.

     Sifford, who once worked as jazz great Billy Eckstine’s personal valet, was the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama 10 years later. He joined Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers so honored at the time – they’ve since been joined by Tiger Woods, Gary Player and Annika Sorenstam.

     “He is the ultimate pioneer who endured untold hardships with tremendous dignity, courage and spirit and he is a true role model who has provided inspiration to aspiring players of diverse backgrounds,” then-PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem said. “We all owe him a debt of gratitude for helping to change our sport for the better.”

     Woods tweeted his congratulations to Sifford that day, calling him the “grandpa I never had.”

     “It's not an exaggeration to say that without Charlie, and the other pioneers who fought to play, I may not be playing golf," Woods told The Associated Press in an email several years ago. "My pop likely wouldn't have picked up the sport, and maybe I wouldn't have either.”

     Throughout his life, Sifford, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in 2006, was keenly aware of the impact he could have on the game. 

     "I knew what I was getting into when I chose golf," Sifford told Golf Digest in a first-person piece in 2006. "Hell, I knew I'd never get rich and famous. All the discrimination, the not being able to play where I deserved and wanted to play — in the end I didn't give a damn. 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."