UPDATED 2/4/15, 12:44 P.M. EST: President Barack Obama released the following statement on Charles Sifford‘s (pictured) passing:
“Michelle and I offer our condolences on the passing of golf legend Charlie Sifford. Charlie was the first African-American to earn a PGA tour card – often facing indignity and injustice even as he faced the competition. Though his best golf was already behind him, he proved that he belonged, winning twice on tour and blazing a trail for future generations of athletes in America. I was honored to award Charlie the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year – for altering the course of the sport and the country he loved. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, his friends, and his fans.”
Charles Sifford (pictured), who was the first African American to break the color barriers to play in a Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) golf tour, passed away Tuesday night at age 92 from heart complications, according to his son, Craig.
A Charlotte, S.C., native, Sifford became a caddie at 13 for Whites-only golf courses. At one point, Sifford was making about 60 cents a day caddying and would reportedly give 50 cents to his mother and keep a dime for himself. Sifford would use his reserved monies to purchase cigars, which would later become his trademark.
As a young adult, Sifford competed in golf tournaments that Blacks organized for themselves since they were excluded from participating in such tours as the PGA of America. While working as band leader Billy Ecstine’s golf coach, Sifford tried to qualify for the Phoenix Open back in 1952, considered to be the largest professional golf tournament on the PGA Tour.
But even using an invitation for the famed Phoenix golfing event obtained by heavyweight boxing great Joe Louis did not protect Sifford from being subjected to racial slurs and threats there and at other tournaments. Still, Sifford, who was oftentimes referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of golf,” forged on and did not allow his haters to keep him from the game he loved. As a matter of fact, Robinson served as Sifford’s counselor who encouraged him to keep striving toward getting in to a PGA tour.
As Sifford dominated the Negro National Open, capturing the title six times in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement was swirling around him as the sixties made its entrance. The PGA was beginning to feel pressure about its “Whites-only” membership bylaws.
In 1961, under pressure from the California attorney general and Sifford’s unrelenting challenges of the organization’s segregated clause, the PGA permitted the Black golfing pro full membership on the tour.
Afterward, Sifford won the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open in 1969 and was champion of the Seniors Championship in 1975.
In 2014, Sifford became the third golfer to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor an American civilian can receive. Sifford, who opened up the doors of golf to all ethnicities, was also inducted in to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004. In Sifford’s induction speech in to the Hall of Fame, he stated the following, “Man, I’m in the Hall of Fame, the World Hall of Fame. Don’t forget that now! I’m in the World Hall of Fame with all the players. That little old golf I played was all right, wasn’t it?”