“Michelle and I offer our condolences on the passing of golf legend Charlie Sifford. Charlie was the first African American to earn a PGA tour card, often facing 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. 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” — President Barack Obama, Feb. 4.
Charlie Sifford, often referred to as the ‘Jackie Robinson of Golf,’ passed away on February 3, 2015, at the age of 92. Sifford became the first Black member of the PGA Tour in 1961, four years after winning an unofficial but still PGA sponsored tournament in Long Beach, California, defeating several well-known stars of the day.
Sifford won six National Negro Open Championships, the 1957 Long Beach Open, then as a full member of the PGA Tour won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. One of the founding members of the Champions Tour five years later, he won the 1975 Senior PGA Championship. In 2004, he became the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Last November, Sifford joined Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only golfers awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Charlie won tournaments, but more important, he broke a barrier,” Nicklaus once said. “I think what Charlie Sifford has brought to this game has been monumental.”
But Charlie Sifford’s victories off the course were of far greater importance. He changed minds and influenced people, overcoming racial strife to gain acceptance, and also in his tireless efforts on the course. In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, he recounted the story of first meeting Arnold Palmer. It was the 1955 Canadian Open where Sifford, playing due to a special invite, shot an opening round 63, leading Palmer by one.
Palmer exclaimed: “Charlie Sifford? How the hell did he shoot 63?” Sifford, standing directly behind him unbeknownst to Arnie snapped back: “The same damn way you shot 64!”
Sifford backed down from no one. He belonged and knew he belonged, but relied on himself to prove it. Not one for the political arena, Sifford acted behind the scenes, or so he thought. His actions were very much noticed and are making a difference every day.
Upon winning in Hartford, as is customary, there is a dinner celebrating the champion. There was only one problem though: Sifford was not allowed to dine in the dining hall, even at the dinner taking place to honor him. Instead of causing a scene, Sifford gracefully took his plate and went outside and dined with the caddies. The outrage of those in the room, not over Sifford’s actions but over those of the hosts, changed the issue of race relations in the golf world forever. That simple display of grace and class served as the tipping point.
Said Sifford in one of his final interviews with the Associated Press in 2000: “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.” Indeed he is.