WASHINGTON –- Dr. Charles L. “Charlie” Sifford, a former caddie who cleared a forest of obstacles a half-century earlier to carve his rightful place in golf, had the best seat in the East Room of the White House Monday afternoon.
Wearing a new black suit and a big smile, Sifford sat just a few feet from President Barack Obama, who served as master of ceremonies. The President praised 18 uncommon Americans as recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
When his name was called, the 92-year-old Sifford, a PGA Life Member, waited for the President to approach him. President Obama gathered a blue ribbon bearing a golden star and draped it around Sifford’s neck.
The humble man who began playing golf at age 13, and later endured a gauntlet of abuse, now had membership privileges in one of the most select “clubs” in the country.
When asked how earning this medal compared to playing for a major, Sifford clutched the ribbon and the golden star and said, "No major compares to this. Today was exciting. Great people to be around you. I loved it."
Sifford joined a glittering roster of Medal of Freedom recipients that included Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep, Emmy Award-winning journalist Tom Brokaw, Ethel Kennedy, actress-activist Marlo Thomas and singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder.
“This 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.”
Former U.S. Congressman Mel Watt, a distant relative of Sifford, called the honor “bigger than sport.”
“The Medal of Freedom takes in the contributions to America and how someone lives out the ideals in the Constitution for the betterment of others,” said Watt, the Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. “Charlie has opened up avenues for aspiring generations of Americans.”
Sifford was the first person of color to compete in PGA-sanctioned events following the demise in 1961 of the “Caucasian-only” PGA of America membership clause.
The national recognition on behalf of Sifford was spearheaded by the PGA of America and was met with wide-ranging support from all of golf’s national governing bodies, national diversity-focused organizations, government officials and sports figures. Among those lending their support to the effort were the PGA TOUR, United States Golf Association, World Golf Foundation, 64 Members of Congress and notable athletes that included Jim Brown, Alonzo Mourning, Bill Russell and Tiger Woods.
In addition, to help celebrate this special recognition, the PGA of America has developed a PSA thanking Sifford for teeing up the game for future generations and is encouraging others to do so at www.pga.com/thanksCharlieSifford.
THANK YOU CHARLIE: Watch as the PGA of America honors Dr. Sifford
“I think Charlie Sifford’s name is going to be put into a whole other area of national and global recognition,” said Sheila Johnson, golf entrepreneur and USGA Executive Committee member. “I hope that there will be more stories on Charlie. We’re still fighting the fight in golf. As a USGA officer, I also understand the struggles that he’s been through. I will tell you that the barriers are still there. It’s more important now, with more than 130 courses closing down over the past year. If golf wants to continue to grow, we’ve got to start opening up and become more inclusive of people of all races and nationalities.”
Charles Sifford Jr., a retired postal carrier from Shaker Heights, Ohio, was one of four Sifford family members attending the ceremony. He said his father’s preparations to attend the ceremony included adjusting a schedule of undergoing kidney dialysis three times a week.
“We’ve heard it many times about dad being the Jackie Robinson of golf,” said Charles Jr. “Jackie had a strong owner (Branch Rickey) behind him, along with teammates and he played in a stadium with separation from the fans. Dad was out on his own playing professional golf. There was no security. Who was going to step up for him?”
Gallery ropes were a rarity in the early years of the PGA Tour. PGA/LPGA Professional Renee Powell of East Canton, Ohio, the second African-American woman golfer on the LPGA Tour, recalled the risks that she took in the 1960s during the height of the civil rights era.
“It was common for many tournaments to allow the fans to stroll up the fairway behind the players,” says Powell, the PGA Head Professional at Clearview Golf Club. “If Charlie Sifford had not stayed with it and been persistent, it (open access to African Americans in professional golf) would have taken much longer. Charlie helped to make the climate better for all, including me.”
Richard “Jelly” Hansberry, 76, of Washington, D.C., caddied for Sifford at a pro-am in the 1960s and later became a 28-year caddie for Champions Tour veteran Jim Thorpe.
“This is a great honor for him [Charlie] and I think a long time coming for what he did,” said Hansberry. “It was as tough on us caddies as it was for Charlie in many ways. They stopped Charlie at the gate before he could come in to play. As a caddie, we had to wait in the clubhouse until someone came for us.”
Kim Dumpson, executive vice president of public relations for the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (UMES), monitors the school’s PGA Golf Management University Program. UMES, the only Historically Black College that offers the program, hosted a reception Monday night honoring Sifford.
“On our campus we are pursuing a dream of becoming PGA Professionals,” said Dumpson. “We have 25 African-American students who are poised to become members of the PGA. We have an obligation to let our students know of the impact of Charlie Sifford.”