Charlie Sifford, often referred to as the Jackie Robinson of golf, was the first African American to earn a PGA Tour card, and was the first black golfer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Without the efforts of Sifford and others, we’d never know who Tiger Woods is. In 1961, when Charlie Sifford became the first black to play fulltime on the PGA Tour, there who those who were as determined to block the integration of the tour as Charlie Sifford was to overturn that injustice.
In 1946 Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on the baseball diamond. One year later, toughened by a tour of duty in the Army’s 24th Infantry, another young black man named Charlie Sifford told Robinson he planned to follow in his footsteps and compete in golf, a sport where the ball and the participants were equally as white.” He asked me if I was a quitter,” Sifford recalled. “He said, ‘OK, if you’re not a quitter, go ahead and take the challenge. If you’re a quitter, there’s going to be a lot of obstacles you’re going to have to go through to be successful in what you’re trying to do.’ “I made up my mind I was going to do it. I just did it. Everything worked out perfect, I think.”
Born June 2, 1922, in Charlotte North Carolina, Charles Luther Sifford started in golf the only way a black kid growing up in North Carolina could in the 1930s, as a caddie. He earned 60 cents a day and gave his mom 50 cents and kept 10 cents to buy stogies, which became his trademark on the course. By the age of thirteen Charlie was playing par golf.
The country club was closed on Mondays, so the caddies were allowed to use the golf course that day. Sifford took advantage of the situation. He found that he loved the game, and better, that he had a gift for it. Sometimes he and a few friends would sneak inside the grounds before the club opened and practice some more. Because he had to play undetected so often, Charlie Sifford developed a powerful and accurate drive as well as the tendency to hurry on the green, the most likely spot that he would be seen by club security. “I was always moving fast to keep from being thrown off the course,” he told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I never learned how to take my time on the greens and develop a decent stroke.”
Moving north to Philadelphia Charlie Sifford found the public golf courses he needed to perfect his game. “I always did want to be a pro,” he said in the Lexington Herald-Leader. “But the pro tour wasn’t open to African-Americans then.” Instead, Sifford entered segregated golf tournaments and made friends among the black golfers of his day. The early 1940s found him on the United Golf Association tour, and between 1948 and 1960 he won the Negro National Open six times.
Sifford later became golf teacher and valet to Billy Eckstine, an immensely popular jazz singer. Eckstine was in great demand as an entertainer during the 1950s, and Sifford had the chance to meet some of the nation’s top contemporary musicians, including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan. Eckstine himself challenged Sifford to buck the racist restrictions of the PGA. From the singer Sifford also acquired his nickname, “Little Horse,” a memory he preserves today by wearing a golden horse charm on a chain around his neck.
Charlie 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 and was subjected to threats and racial abuse there and at other tournaments. In 1957 he won the Long Beach Open, which was not an official PGA Tour event, but was co-sponsored by the PGA and had some well known white players in the field. Charlie Sifford’s win at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open Invitational was the first by a Black player at a formal PGA Tour event. He became a member of the Tour in 1961. Sifford’s best years already had passed, but he still won twice on the PGA Tour, at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. “If you try hard enough,” Sifford said, “anything can happen.”
After retiring from the PGA, Charlie Sifford went on to play on the Seniors tour. Sifford, who won the 1975 PGA Seniors’ Championship, went on to become an original member of the Champions Tour, where he won the Suntree Classic in 1980.
In 2004, Charlie Sifford became the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He chose the fellow Hall of Fame member South African Gary Player to present him for induction. On June 22, 2006, he received an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews as a Doctor of Laws. He also received the 2007 Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, GCSAA’s highest honor.
In 2009, the Northern Trust Open created an exemption for a player who represents the advancement of diversity in golf; it is named in honor of Sifford and is referred to as the Charlie Sifford Exemption.