Charlie Sifford never got an invitation to play in the Masters because of the color of his skin. But in an emotional ceremony on a blustery Monday afternoon, the 82-year-old Charlotte native became the first black golfer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and said, "Everything just worked out perfectly."
Sifford, whose Hall of Fame sculpture features his ever-present cigar stub, was a part of the most diverse class of golfers to be honored in Hall history, joining Marlene Stewart Streit, the first Canadian inducted; Isao Aoki, the first male Japanese golfer in the Hall; and Tom Kite.
Streit is the only golfer to win the Australian, British, Canadian and U.S. women's amateur titles. Aoki won 73 times on six tours and was the first man from his country to win on the PGA Tour, at the 1983 Hawaiian Open. Kite, a Texas native, has 18 PGA Tour victories, and the 1992 U.S. Open; he also has won seven times on the Champions Tour.
Sifford was selected in the lifetime achievement category, and before the ceremony he shared several stories about his struggles to succeed in a game that discouraged blacks from competing, including a whites-only clause in the rules of the PGA of America that lasted until 1961.
That year, Sifford said he got a call from a friend telling him that he had been invited to play in the Greensboro Open on the PGA Tour. Sifford had played in a number of tour events before, including the 1955 Canadian Open, when he shot a 63 to lead after the first round. Arnold Palmer shot 64 that same day and eventually won the tournament with 265 for 72 holes, the lowest total of his career.
In any case, when Sifford was told about the Greensboro invitation, at first he said he didn't believe it. "I thought he was drunk or something," Sifford recalled. "Me going to Greensboro, playing in a PGA golf tournament in the South with white folks, and I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. That was the day. When my wife, Rose, came home, I asked her what she thought. . . . She said, 'Go on down there, they're not going to bother you.' At first I thought maybe she might be trying to get rid of me."
Sifford played and "had some problems." For one, he couldn't find a hotel that would take in a black guest. He spent a night in a dormitory at North Carolina A&T, but said, "Those kids ran me out of there; they didn't let me sleep."
He finally stayed with a friend, and when he played that week, he said some spectators "kept calling my name, telling me not to come back to the golf course. . . . None of them touched me, thank God. It turned out pretty well."
Sifford, introduced Monday by Gary Player, also recalled that 1955 first round in the Canadian Open as being the start of a long friendship with Palmer.
"I go out and shoot 63," Sifford recalled. "Arnold came off the green, ran to the scoreboard and he sees that 63 up there. He said, 'Charlie Sifford? How in the hell did he shoot 63?' I'm standing right behind him. "I said, 'The same damned way you shot 64.' That's how we met. He's a nice fellow, a nice man."
Palmer was in the crowd to watch the ceremony. Earlier, he toured the Hall, specifically a new exhibit honoring his career, and at a dinner Sunday night, Sifford said Palmer "made a speech that really put water in my eyes, a wonderful speech about me."
Palmer was equally complimentary toward Sifford on Monday.
"He would have been a very dominant player at any time in his life," Palmer said. "He and I have been pretty good friends over the years. I talked to him quite a lot in the early days. In those days, I don't think we were quite aware of what was missing on the tour by his absence. The fact that he had to struggle makes it even more important that he's now in the Hall of Fame."
Though he won twice on the PGA Tour, Sifford never was invited to the Masters. In years past, he expressed bitterness over the obvious racial snub. But Monday, he said making it into the Hall clearly eased his past pain, as did Lee Elder breaking the racial barrier at the tournament when he played at Augusta National in 1975.
"I know Clifford Roberts [the Augusta National chairman at the time] didn't like that at all," Sifford said of Elder's historic breakthrough.
"When [Tiger Woods] won the Masters [in 1997], it made my dreams come true," Sifford said. "That's what I had in mind, but I didn't have a chance. I couldn't play, but I could play golf. . . . Being inducted in the Hall of Fame, it doesn't get any better than that. . . . I think the World Golf Hall of Fame is much greater than the Masters."