Black History Month: Charlie Sifford
February 1, 2024 / by Jerry Stewart
In November 2014, Charles Sifford was among 18 Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Obama at the White House.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom "felt different than anything else," said Sifford, referring to his 2004 induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame and a 2006 honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. "They say what I did helped African-Americans, but it went further."
Sifford was the first Black player to compete in PGA-sanctioned events following the demise in 1961 of the "Caucasian-only" PGA of America membership clause. Throughout the world of golf, he was often compared to baseball's Jackie Robinson, and went on to win PGA Tour events in 1967 and 1969 as well as the 1975 PGA Seniors' Championship.
Tony Parker, historian for the World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, said the battles fought by Sifford and others benefited more than just black golfers.
"He opened the door for all ethnicities," Parker said.
Following Sifford’s passing in 2015, Tiger Woods told The Associated Press in an email that he might never have taken up the game were it not for Sifford and unheralded greats like Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller. Woods has long called Sifford the grandfather he never had. Sifford and Woods' father, the late Earl Woods, became fast friends when Tiger was still playing junior golf.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that without Charlie, and the other pioneers who fought to play, I may not be playing golf," Woods wrote. "My pop likely wouldn't have picked up the sport, and maybe I wouldn't have either."
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on June 2, 1922, Sifford's interest in golf began as a boy. As he made a living through caddying, he also had the opportunity to groom his golf skills. By age 13, he was shooting par golf.
However, his advancement was limited because of race discrimination in the Jim Crow era. Even though Sifford made significant strides in his career, he continued to be a target of harassment and death threats prior to and following the abolishment of the "Caucasian-only" clause.
Sifford honed his game in the United Golf Association, a tournament circuit established in the mid-1920s by black golfers, and allowed golfers of all races to compete. He won the UGA's biggest event, the National Negro Open, six times, including five successive years from 1952 to 1956.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.