After Charlie Sifford became the first black man to join the PGA tour in 1961, he was met with death threats.
He was 38 years old, a six-time National Negro Open winner, and past his prime when he was finally accepted into the organization, which had previously codified itself as whites-only in its bylaws.
Spectators and sometimes, fellow pros, would sabotage his games by moving a ball that had fallen just adjacent to the brush well into it. They directed racist slurs at him, left excrement in the green cups. Sifford was denied entry to clubhouses and hotels, and encountered hostility from tour organizers and sponsors, instances he recounted in his 1992 autobiography “Just Let Me Play.”
But Sifford, who died Tuesday at age 92, persevered, even winning a couple of tour events, the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open, always accompanied by his trademark cigar. In 1975, he won the PGA Seniors title.
“His love of golf, despite many barriers in his path, strengthened him as he became a beacon for diversity in our game,” PGA of America President Derek Sprague told ESPN. “By his courage, Dr. Sifford inspired others to follow their dreams. Golf was fortunate to have had this exceptional American in our midst.”
In November, President Obama honored Sifford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He was the third golfer to be bestowed with the honor, after Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
When Sifford was just a young caddy on the whites-only golf courses of Charlotte, North Carolina, he made 60 cents a day. Sifford told reporters he would pocket 10 cents for a cigar, and give the remaining 50 to his mother. Eventually, the cigar just became part of his legend — most of the time it wasn’t even lit, he said, just a talisman made ever-present out of habit. He learned to play on municipal courses in Philadelphia, and fell in love with the game.
The symbolism of Sifford’s presence could hardly be overstated, given golf’s image of conservatism and exclusivity. To many, it still remains the sport of the powerful, prestigious, and wealthy, one that mandates a collared shirt, one where sod, rather than carpet, mutes knocks at glass ceilings.
He became the first black man to be inducted into Golf Hall of Fame, welcomed by Gary Player. Sifford was awarded an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews in 2006, and was often addressed with the honorific “doctor.”
“I think it’s really appropriate that Dr. Charlie Sifford, his name will replace the name of Revolution Golf Course, because in fact, Dr. Sifford is the revolution,” Anthony Foxx, then-mayor of Charlotte, said at a dedication ceremony in 2011. “I grew up thinking the sport was for someone else. But Charlie Sifford taught all of us that the game of golf is for whoever can play.”
Sifford had a close relationship with Tiger Woods, whom he called “Junior.”
“It was a tough time for Charlie to go through what he went through, but he paved the way for a lot of us to be where we’re at,” Woods said in a news conference at the 2013 U.S. Open. “I know my dad probably wouldn’t have picked up the game if it wasn’t for what Charlie did. I’ve always called him my grandpa, the grandpa I never really had. I’ve gotten to know him through the years and it’s been fantastic. We owe a lot to him and all the pioneers that have paved the way for us to be here.”