CHARLIE SIFFORD, WHO SHATTERED A BARRIER OF RACE IN GOLF
The son of a factory worker, he had caddied as a youngster at his whites-only hometown country club in Charlotte, N.C. — earning 60 cents a day and giving 50 to his mother — and at age 13 he sometimes broke par when caddies were allowed to play the course on Mondays. By his mid-20s he was a top-flight player.
When he met Jackie Robinson in 1947, soon after Robinson broke the modern Major League Baseball color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Sifford told him of his dream. Robinson replied that he could not be a quitter. Speaking from his own experience, Robinson told of the hostility that Sifford would face as a black man in a sport that had long been a white preserve. At the time, the P.G.A. of America maintained a Caucasians-only membership clause.
Sifford did encounter hostility, plenty of it, as he pursued his ambition, but he also did not quit, and as he neared 40 — an age when most golfers on the PGA Tour are winding down their careers — he broke pro golf’s racial barrier, becoming in 1960 the first black player in a PGA Tour event.
Sifford died on Tuesday at 92 in a hospital in Cleveland, not far from his home in Brecksville, Ohio. The P.G.A. announced his death.
In November, President Obama presented Sifford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in a White House ceremony. “We give thanks to the trailblazers who built the arc of freedom towards justice,” the president said at the time.
Sifford began playing as a pro in the late 1940s, but he was relegated to the black players’ tour and its meager purses as he competed well into his 30s. Only after the P.G.A. dropped its Caucasians-only rule in 1961 did he get a chance to go up against the golf world’s best, at a time when tournament leaderboards listed the likes of Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus, then a rising star.
By then, his best playing days were behind him, but Sifford showed what he might have accomplished in his prime and paved the way for the black golfers Lee Elder, Calvin Peete, Jim Thorpe, Jim Dent and Tiger Woods.
“Charlie, in my opinion, is one of the most courageous men ever to play this sport,” Woods once said.
Elder, who in 1975 became the first black player to compete in the Masters, told The New York Times in 1992, “Without Charlie Sifford, there would have been no one to fight the system for the blacks that followed.”
Elder added: “It took a special person to take the things that he took: the tournaments that barred him, the black cats in his bed, the hotels where he couldn’t stay, the country club grills where he couldn’t eat. Charlie was tough and hard.”
Sifford quickly made a mark on the PGA Tour. In October 1960 he finished second, behind Billy Casper, at the Orange County Open in Costa Mesa, Calif. He went on to win the PGA Tour’s Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and its Los Angeles Open in 1969, and he captured the P.G.A. Seniors’ Championship in 1975.
He was an original member of the Senior Tour (now the Champions Tour), which was founded in 1980, and he won its Suntree Classic that year. He earned more than $341,000 on the regular tour and more than $1 million altogether as a professional.
Sifford felt the sting of racism in the early years. Invited to play in the Greater Greensboro Open in North Carolina in 1961, he arrived to find law-enforcement officers at the first hole, The Charlotte Observer reported. After taking the first-round lead, he said, he received a death threat that evening. Heckled by some fans, he played on and finished fourth.
“Folks threatened him, shouted slurs from the gallery,” President Obama said at the White House ceremony last year. Fellow pros sometimes kicked Sifford’s ball into the rough, the president said.
In 2004, Sifford became the first black player to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla. He was cited in the lifetime achievement category, recognizing contributions beyond total victories.
The golf champion Lee Trevino — as a Mexican-American one of the few other minority-group members on the Tour in his day — spoke of those contributions in an interview with The Orlando Sentinel around the time of the ceremony.
“When you look at it, and what he accomplished and how he stayed in there,” Trevino said of Sifford, “you have to put him in the Jackie Robinson category.”
Charles Luther Sifford was born in Charlotte on June 2, 1922. Of the 60 cents a day he earned caddying, the dime he kept for himself was used to buy cigars. In the years to come, they were his trademark. A sturdy 5 feet 8 inches, at 185 pounds or so, he would chomp cigars as he walked the courses.
Sifford served in a segregated Army in the Pacific, and although he was involved in the ferocious Battle of Okinawa in the war’s last months, his precise role in it remains unclear. Returning home afterward, he found himself unwanted in the sport he loved.
In 1952, he was allowed to play in the Phoenix Open in an all-black foursome that included the former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. When the golfers arrived at the first hole, they found that someone had put excrement into it.
Sifford competed mostly on the United Golf Association tour, for black players, in the 1950s. Facing some outstanding tour players, most notably Ted Rhodes, whose time was essentially past when the color barriers came down, Sifford won the National Negro Open every year from 1952 to 1956 and again in 1960. He also worked as a golf coach and a traveling aide to the singer Billy Eckstine.
In 1957, Sifford won the Long Beach Open in California, which was not an official PGA Tour event although its field had many pros. Two years later, according to the United States Golf Association, he met Stanley Mosk, the California state attorney general, who knew that Sifford was barred from P.G.A. tournaments in his state.
Presenting Sifford as a California resident whose civil rights were being violated, Mosk asked the tour to show reasons other than race why Sifford was denied membership.
As a result, the P.G.A. made Sifford an approved tournament player in 1960, the first black golfer to receive the designation, and he was officially a rookie on the PGA Tour. Its Caucasians-only clause was dropped in November 1961, and Sifford was awarded full P.G.A. membership three years later.
Pete Brown became the first black player to win an official PGA Tour event when he captured the 1964 Waco Turner tournament in Oklahoma, an obscure event named for the oilman who founded it.
When Sifford won the higher-profile Greater Hartford Open by one stroke in August 1967, shooting a final-round 64 at Wethersfield Country Club, he received an ovation from the galleries and pats on the back from his fellow pros.
His triumph represented much more than his $20,000 paycheck. “If you try hard enough, anything can happen,” he said with tears in his eyes.
In the Los Angeles Open in 1969, Sifford shot a 28 on the back nine of his opening round and went on to defeat Harold Henning in a playoff.
Sometimes gruff when interviewed, Sifford struggled to overcome anger at the opportunities he had lost to racial discrimination, and he sought psychological counseling and listened to relaxation tapes.
“That helped some,” he once said. “But nothing’s going to help 30 years taken out of your life.”
In his later years, Sifford spoke of hoping to see more African-American golfers, and he conducted clinics for youngsters.
His last appearance on the Champions Tour came in 2011, when he played in the 70-and-up Demaret Division of the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, paired with Elder.
Sifford’s wife, Rose, died in 1998. He is survived by his sons, Charles Jr. and Craig; his companion, Anna McCray; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
At his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Sifford was introduced by Gary Player. Player, having witnessed the injustices of apartheid in his native South Africa, observed, “We honor a man not just for what he accomplished on the course, but for the course he chose in life.”
Sifford himself summoned thoughts of South Africa in reflecting on his life in 1992.
“Didn’t anyone think I was going to get this far,” he said. “It’s like Nelson Mandela. They kept him in jail 25 years, but it didn’t break his determination. They couldn’t break mine.”
An earlier version of this obituary misspelled the surname of the California attorney general who challenged the PGA’s exclusion of Sifford. He was Stanley Mosk, not Molk.