Why Charlie Sifford is in the 'Jackie Robinson category' of golf

By Bob Denney
Published on
Why Charlie Sifford is in the 'Jackie Robinson category' of golf

On Feb. 2, 1975, in his first appearance in the PGA Seniors Championship (since renamed the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship), Charlie Sifford found magic at Disney World.

The bull-shouldered professional from Los Angeles, marked his retirement from the PGA Tour by winning a major championship in the over-50 circuit. Sifford holed a 25-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole to defeat Fred Wampler at Disney’s Magnolia Course in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

“I made up my mind I wasn’t going to be short,” said Sifford, who shouted “Hoo-hey!” and waved his arms and putter skyward. Sifford’s outburst was before Wampler attempted his nine-foot birdie putt, which missed left of the hole.

Victory came a couple days after Sifford, then age 51, accepted the head professional position at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Cleveland, Ohio. The title, Sifford said, “means more to me than playing in the Masters.”

MORE: Visit our #ThanksCharlieSifford page | Sifford hailed by many for breaking golf's color barrier

Sifford turned professional in 1948 and played his first PGA Tour event in 1954. He competed in the United Golf Association (UGA) events, which black golfers organized for themselves as they were excluded from membership in the Tour operated by the PGA of America. Sifford won the UGA’s National Negro Open six times. He later worked as a valet and golf instructor to the singer Billy Eckstine, who also financially supported his career when he was unable to find sponsorship.

Sifford first attempted to qualify for a PGA Tour event at the 1952 Phoenix Open, using an invitation obtained by former World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. Sifford was subjected to threats and racial abuse there and at other tournaments.

In 1957, Sifford won the Long Beach Open, which was not an official PGA Tour event, but was co-sponsored by the PGA and had 10 future or current major champions in the field. Sifford competed in the U. S. Open in 1959 for the first time, and tied for 32nd place. He became a member of the Tour in 1961, thus becoming the first African American to join the PGA Tour. Though Sifford won the 1967 Hartford Open Invitational and the 1969 Los Angeles Open, neither event carried automatic Masters invitations.

In 2009, the Northern Trust Open (formerly the Los Angeles Open) created an exemption for a player who represents the advancement of diversity in golf; it is named the Charlie Sifford Exemption.

WATCH: Sifford receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

Lee Trevino said of Sifford, "You have to put him in the Jackie Robinson category." Tiger Woods referred to Sifford as "the Grandpa I never had," and that, without Sifford, "I probably wouldn't be here. My dad would have never have picked up the game. Who knows if the [former PGA Caucasian-only membership] clause would still exist or not? But he broke it down.”

In 2004, Sifford became the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He chose Hall of Fame member Gary Player of South Africa to present him for induction. In 2006, he received an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews as a Doctor of Laws. And, on Nov. 24, 2014, President Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Sifford’s neck as he sat in a wheelchair in the East Room of the White House.

“No major compares to this,” said Sifford. He would pass away on Feb. 3, 2015. He was 92.