As a report on Tiger Woods’ struggles at the Farmers Insurance Open served as background noise while I thinking about what I was going write about this week, the name Charlie Sifford popped in my head. You see long before Tiger exploded on the scene, Sifford was one of the pioneers that blazed the trail that helped Woods and other African Americans enjoy the game of golf.
Sifford was instrumental in breaking down the barriers that prevented African Americans from participating in the Professional Golf Association events. He was the first black to earn a PGA card in 1961 and to win two of their tournaments, 1967 Hartford Open and 1969 Los Angeles Open. Most will remember him for his accomplishments, but he should be revered for his journey.
Safford’s golf career began as a modest caddy in his native North Carolina. During his formative years, African Americans were not welcome on most courses, especially, the well maintained private and even public courses throughout the country. If you did see an African American on one of these clubs, they were usually there in some sort of servant capacity. However, this is how Sifford and his crew were able to learn the nuances of the game and even get in a few practice rounds in on the side. From there they would go and master their craft at the segregated courses where they would play before and after work.
Upon returning to the States after serving WWII, he found his way back to links. In addition to working several jobs, he found himself working a dual role as chauffeur and golf pro for crooner Billy Eckstine. This allowed him to travel throughout the world as well as play with some of the more influential African Americans of that era including Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Redd Foxx. This Band of Merry Men played in several all-black tournaments but they were not welcomed with open arms outside of these events despite their celebrity status.
Not only did they have to stay in segregated and inferior hotel accommodations, they ran into less than ideal conditions on the links. In one case, while playing in an integrated tournament, the foursome in front of them left a not-so-nice gift for them on the first hole. Someone defecated in the cup.
You can find plenty of stories like that in Charlie Sifford’s autobiography, Just Let Me Play. However, Brother Sifford does not dwell or harp on them. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with him three years ago at a celebrity event sponsored by Original Tee, an organization dedicated to promoting golf within the African American community. He told the gathering that those situations made him stronger and even more determine to excel in the game that he loved.
After meeting Sifford, I have to snicker at the thought that Tiger Woods broke down barriers in the world of golf for African Americans. Sifford was to golf what Jackie Robinson was to baseball as far as blacks are concerned. The discrimination that Woods endured pales in comparison to what Sifford went through. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear. Sifford opened the door that allowed Tiger Woods to step in the house and take a seat.