Charlie Sifford, who overcame death threats, heckling from spectators and sabotage on the course to become the first African American golfer on the PGA Tour in 1961 and who was often called the Jackie Robinson of his sport, died Feb. 3 at a hospital in Cleveland. He was 92.
Mr. Sifford learned to play golf while working as a caddie at a segregated country club in his native North Carolina and tried for years to compete on the tour of the Professional Golfers’ Association. He was turned down year after year because of the PGA’s “Caucasian clause,” which required its members to be white.
Stocky and broad-shouldered, with a thick cigar often clenched between his teeth, Mr. Sifford was a vision of determination on the course and off. He was 38 and past his prime as a player when the PGA finally granted him provisional membership. He went on to win two tournaments and to compete in the U.S. Open and PGA championships. In 2004, Mr. Sifford became the first African American admitted to the World Golf Hall of Fame. A fellow golfer, President Obama, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2014.
“Charlie, in my opinion, is one of the most courageous men ever to play this sport,” Tiger Woods told the New York Times in 1998. “He kept fighting and fighting to the point where he knocked down the Caucasian clause. If it wasn’t for him, his strong will, who knows? I might have never had the chance to play golf.”
In 1947, Robinson made headlines around the country when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming major-league baseball’s first African American player of the 20th century. Mr. Sifford met Robinson that year at a golf tournament in California and told him of his goal to compete on the professional tour.
“Are you a quitter?” Robinson asked, according to a story Mr. Sifford retold in his 1992 autobiography, “Just Let Me Play.”
“I said, ‘No, I’m not a quitter.’ ”
At the time, there was a separate black tour organized by the United Golf Association, but the paychecks were small and the courses often deficient. While fighting for a spot on the PGA Tour, Mr. Sifford won the UGA championship six times from 1952 to 1960, including five years in a row.
Several African American golfers, including Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller, competed in isolated PGA-sponsored tournaments in the late 1940s, but for years only three events on the tour — in Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto — were open to black golfers. Mr. Sifford began to challenge those restrictions in the early 1950s with lawsuits and repeated applications to the PGA.
While playing in Phoenix in 1952, Mr. Sifford and other black golfers reached the green on the first hole, only to find human feces in the cup. On the rare occasions when he was allowed to compete in a tournament, Mr. Sifford often had to change clothes in his car because he was not allowed in the clubhouse.
He brought his own sandwiches or ate lunch with the caddies because he could not enter country-club restaurants. After he made a shot, spectators sometimes kicked his golf ball into the rough or hid it under garbage.
Because Mr. Sifford competed in an individual sport, he had no teammates or coaches to offer support. Most white golfers had commercial or private sponsors to provide equipment and pay for transportation and lodging. Mr. Sifford had none. The only salary he made was what he earned on the golf course.
“Every time I go into a tournament, I’m strictly on my own,” he said in 1963. “I know I’m playing for my bread and butter.”
In 1955, he entered the Canadian Open and shot a 63 in the opening round, tying the tournament record for 18 holes. (The tournament was ultimately won by Arnold Palmer in what was his first professional victory.)
Mr. Sifford won a 1957 tournament in Long Beach, Calif., against top white golfers, but he was still denied his PGA card. Robinson drew attention to Mr. Sifford’s plight in a 1959 newspaper column, writing that golf “is the one major sport in America today in which rank and open racial prejudice is allowed to reign supreme.”
It took years of lawsuits, pressure from the California attorney general and advocacy by the NAACP before the PGA abolished the Caucasian clause. Even after Mr. Sifford was granted a provisional membership in 1961, several tournaments in the South and Southwest still barred him from play. He didn’t gain full accreditation from the PGA until 1964.
Mr. Sifford won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open in Connecticut for his first official PGA victory. Two years later, he shot a dazzling 63 in the opening round of the Los Angeles Open, then compiled a cumulative score of 276 for four rounds to tie South African golfer Harold Henning for first place.
On the first hole of a sudden-death playoff, Mr. Sifford sank a six-foot birdie putt to claim the $20,000 first prize. The crowd roared at his dramatic victory, and Mr. Sifford was seen as one of the tour’s most popular players. Yet, when he returned to his home state of North Carolina for a tournament later in 1969, he had to endure race-baiting from spectators before the police hauled the hecklers away.
Never considered a central figure in the larger civil rights movement of the 1960s, Mr. Sifford was nonetheless adamant about demanding respect in the world of golf, one tournament at a time.
In 1975, Lee Elder, one of the black golfers who followed Mr. Sifford on the PGA Tour, became the first African American to participate in the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Mr. Sifford was upset that the Masters never sent him an invitation to play, and he refused to enter the grounds of Augusta National, the club that holds the tournament.
“There were about a dozen black players on the tour in the ’60s, and Charlie was our leader,” golfer James Black told Golf World magazine last year. “He’d say, ‘Don’t let no one stop you. Don’t quit.’ The white players respected Charlie for that toughness, how he always had positive energy. He possessed something special inside that set him apart.”
Charles Luther Sifford was born in Charlotte on June 2, 1922, and he was one of six children. His father was a factory worker.
As a boy, Mr. Sifford worked as a caddie at a Charlotte country club, where he practiced golf on the sly. He said putting was the weakest part of his game because he was always in a hurry, looking over his shoulder to see whether he would be thrown off the course.
At 17, Mr. Sifford was told he could no longer work at the club because he was outplaying most of the members. He moved to Philadelphia, where he practiced on public courses.
During World War II, he served in the Army in the Pacific and was a member of a military golf team. After his discharge, he became a valet and golf coach for several years to singer Billy Eckstine.
Throughout the 1960s, Mr. Sifford was one of the 60 top money-winners on the PGA Tour. He continued to play on the tour into his 50s, still without a sponsor.
“I’m playing because I can’t find anything else to do,” he said in 1974. “I can’t get a teaching job with anybody. I was turned down three times in California for a club pro job.”
Mr. Sifford won the PGA Seniors championship in 1975, but the reminders of his past never completely disappeared. At a 1986 tournament in Los Angeles, the organizers promised a prize of $100,000 and a new car to anyone who made a hole-in-one.
Mr. Sifford scored the ace but was denied the cash and the car. He filed a lawsuit and won a jury decision.
In later years, he expressed pride in Woods, an African American golfer who became the sport’s dominant player in the late 1990s. But for most of Woods’s career, he has been the only black golfer on the PGA Tour.
“If I was the Jackie Robinson of golf, I sure didn’t do a very good job of it,” Mr. Sifford wrote in his 1992 autobiography. “Jackie was followed by hundreds of great, black ballplayers who have transformed their sport. . . . But there are hardly any black kids coming up through the ranks of golf today.”
He lived in Brecksville, Ohio, near Cleveland, and continued to play golf well into his 80s, usually puffing on his trademark cigar.
His wife of 51 years, Rose Crumbley Sifford, died in 1998.
Mr. Sifford died of a bacterial infection and a stroke, said a son, Charles Sifford Jr. of Cleveland.
Other survivors include another son, Craig Sifford of Brecksville; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
In 2011, Mr. Sifford’s home town of Charlotte named a public golf course in Mr. Sifford’s honor — a once-segregated course that he could not play on when he was younger.
“I really would like to know how good I could have been with a fair chance,” Mr. Sifford said in 1992. “I loved the game, and I had a gift, but I had too much pressure. I will never know.”