Charlie Sifford, an important figure in the world of professional golf, recently died at the age of 92. Just last November he was presented with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Obama in a White House ceremony.
It was the final feather in the golf cap for a man who, throughout his career, played the role of the scout, riding up ahead on the trail and leading the way for others, but who in doing so ended up with all the arrows in his back.
But no amount of humiliating verbal slings and arrows were enough to knock down Sifford. He was emotionally tough enough to tolerate whatever came his way. He made it clear he’d do it all again, that his contribution was to help black people be able to play golf.
His importance in the history and politics of golf was that he was the first African American to break the color barrier, the first to be given a Professional Golf Assn.-approved players card to play on the tour. He was the “Jackie Robinson of golf.”
In fact, it was Robinson — he and Sifford had met in California in 1947 — who encouraged Sifford to take on the challenge of making it in pro golf “if you’re not a quitter.” Getting this support helped Sifford decide to turn pro and become a warrior, fighting the uphill battle of prejudice that awaited him.
Tiger Woods met Sifford when Woods was young, and because he had no living biological grandfather, considered Sifford his “honorary grandfather.” Woods once said, “Charlie is one of the most courageous men ever to play this sport.”
In 1967, Sifford became the first black player to win on tour. His second victory came in 1969 at the Los Angeles Open at Rancho Park Golf Course, where I remember him perpetually chomping on a cigar — even when he was swinging the club.
Long before being allowed to join the tour, Sifford was a legend in Southern California, winning the Long Beach Open in 1957. He was part of a group of notable black golfers who gathered at what was then the Western Avenue Golf Course in Los Angeles. The group included Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes, as well as celebrities Jim Brown and Joe Louis.
At the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, I recognized Sifford, then 86, standing next to Chi-Chi Rodriquez and Phil Rodgers on the driving range. I thanked him for the role he played in paving the way for black golfers.
He has been quoted as saying, “There’s not a man on this tour who could have gone through what I went through to be a golfer. I still can’t believe I went so long without breaking down or quitting the game.… I don’t smile much, and I never laugh. It’s just something that’s in me. If you’d been through what I’ve been through, you wouldn’t be smiling either.”
In 2004, Sifford was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and his induction speech was given by Gary Player. It was about time that a man who just wanted to play the game but stumbled into being a civil rights warrior finally got his due.
And last year, Sifford must have been filled with pride when he was handed his Presidential Medal of Freedom by none other than our first black president.
STEVEN HENDLIN is a clinical and sport psychologist in practice in Newport Beach.