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Charlie Sifford stayed the course
Charles Sifford is 91 years old, which puts him on the front end of the civil rights movement’s impact on the sports world.
And Charlie did it in golf.
In the late 1920s or early '30s – “Something like that,” Sifford says – Sifford, still a youngster, began working as a caddy in Charlotte, N.C. After his workday was through, he liked to go hit some balls, too, and before too long he figured out he was pretty good at it.
“That’s the way I learned how to play,” he said.
Black golfers in those days weren’t welcome in most tournaments, so they had to organize their own. He played in those for a while but yearned for his shot against the big names on the PGA Tour.
Sifford says he can’t remember exactly how this all happened, but in 1952 the PGA invited boxer Joe Louis to play in the Phoenix Open. Louis declined, and in essence transferred the invitation to Sifford, who along with the opportunity to play was welcomed with heaps of racial abuse.
But he just kept playing.
“I just wanted to play golf, you know?” he said. “That’s all there was to it.”
That typifies Sifford’s attitude toward his career, now that he is in old age. He does not have a lot to say about it, and does not seem to consider it to have been all that remarkable, even though he was the first African-American in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He recalls that “some” of the newspapers of his day made a big deal about him, but doesn’t think of himself as a pioneer. He thinks of himself as a golfer, same as he ever was.
“I felt the same,” he says. “Nothing different.”
Sifford won the UGA National Negro Open five times before getting his first win on the PGA Tour, the 1957 Long Beach Open. He would later win at Puerto Rico in 1963 and at Sea Pines in 1971.
He played in his first U.S. Open in 1959, tying for 32nd, but his best finish in a major came in 1972, when he tied for 21st at the U.S. Open. He never played in The Masters or The Open Championship.
There is a rule named after Charles Sifford, now. It’s called the Charlie Sifford Exemption, and it offers an exemption to the Northern Trust Open to any player representing the advancement of diversity in golf. Which is, of course, what Sifford represented all those years ago, even if he didn’t see it that way.
“It was just something new,” he said.
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