Charlie Sifford, the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour, was presented with the Gold Tee Award by the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association last night. The ceremony was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.
What really made it sparkle was Gary Player’s acceptance speech for the Special Recognition Award presented to him by the MGWA at the same event. He graciously accepted the award, but then insisted on turning the spotlight on Sifford, whom he saluted at length as a strong competitor, loving husband, and powerful crusader for human dignity. It was a pure touch of class by the Black Knight, who suffered many of the same types of racial abuse during his playing days as a result of his steadfast stand against apartheid in his native South Africa.
Sifford’s story is testament to an indomitable spirit. He became a caddie at the age of 13 in this home town of Charlotte, North Carolina. Four years later, he turned pro and went on to win the United Golf Association’s National Negro Open six times, including five straight titles beginning in 1952.
He tried to qualify for the 1952 PGA Phoenix Open—a PGA Tour event—but was threatened and racially abused. In 1957, he won the Long Beach Open, a milestone of sorts since it was co-sponsored by the PGA even though it was not an official PGA event.
Finally, in 1961, Charlie Sifford overcame the “caucasion only” rule imposed by the PGA and won a tour card, the first African-American to do so. He became the Tour’s first African-American winner in 1967 when he won the Greater Hartford Open. In 1969, he won the Los Angeles Open. In a black mark that still stands, however, he was never invited to play in The Masters.
Sifford’s story is an inspiring one, and his humor-filled, poignant remarks at last night’s award dinner in Tarrytown, NY, reflected a life filled with both struggle and grace.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a romantic thriller about blood diamonds in the Congo