(Photo: AP Photo/File)
Before there was a Curt Flood, he was there. Before there was a Muhammad Ali, he was there; before there was a Tommie Smith or a John Carlos or today’s roster of high-profile Black athletes, he was there.
Yes, Charlie Sifford was a man who had been on the sports scene for a long while. Sifford wasn’t just around it. To even suggest the word “around” is to be far too dismissive of Sifford’s role in the cultural and social evolution of the Black athlete.
Sifford was there – in the center of it – forging a legacy in a sport that was even slower to embrace the Black athlete than baseball and basketball were.
Sadly, we must use the past tense now to talk about Sifford, the Jackie Robinson of professional golf, because of his death this week. Sifford died perhaps with not all the fanfare he deserved for his contributions to this billion-dollar industry that is sports in America. He was the first Black man to earn a PGA Tour card, the first Black man to win a PGA tournament.
His life is a tribute to chasing dreams, to not letting injustice or indignities get the best of you in a world that, too often for folks of color, hasn’t welcomed them into it.
“He proved that he belonged, winning twice on tour and blazing a trail for future generations of athletes in America,” President Obama wrote in a statement the White House released Wednesday. “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.”
Sifford did alter golf, much the way Robinson had altered baseball a decade earlier. Golf needed to be altered, too. It remained a bastion of whiteness, built around the elegance of privilege that Sifford never benefited from. He found that world as uninviting to him as Robinson found baseball.
Yet like Robinson, Sifford never quit the game. Challenging the whites-only clause of the PGA, he got it rescinded in 1961. He was in his late 30s, a time when pro golfers see their game slide into mediocrity.
Six years later, he saw his efforts rewarded: Sifford won the Greater Hartford Open, his first of two titles on the PGA Tour. His championships should have opened all doors wide to him. They did not.
Sifford spent his entire career trying for the ultimate acceptance. He wanted to play the Masters. Every golfer does.
The Masters, however, kept its doors closed to men like him. It didn’t care how many titles he won, because Augusta was going to remain a course he couldn’t play. It left him bitter.
His success blazed a trail for others. Lee Elder soon followed, and decades later, Tiger Woods came along, too. Tiger, who called Sifford the “grandpa” he never had, didn’t just play the Masters; he won it.
Tiger paid his thanks to Sifford.
“He fought, and what he did, the courage it took for him to stick with it and be out here and play, I probably wouldn't be here,” Tiger said of Sifford. “My dad would never have picked up the game. Who knows if the [whites-only] clause would still exist or not? But he broke it down.”
Sifford did indeed.
Maybe someone else would have come along and did what he did. Maybe not, though. No one has to wonder about the latter; Charlie Sifford made sure of that. He took the arrows that all pioneers take, and he lived to tell about it.
His death at 92 simply reminds people, if only for a while, what racism was like when it was so naked, when whites were unafraid to show contempt for Black men like him.
The world might be better today, though sometimes it’s hard for a young Black man to use the word “better” and not laugh when he does. Still, he knows this: The world is better today than it was when Charlie Sifford was trying to find his place in it.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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