Month: February 2015

Farewell Charlie Sifford

Guest Post by Bill Mallon

Charlie Sifford died yesterday and if you are not a major league golf fan, or an old fossil, like me, you have no idea who that is, but you should. Charlie Sifford was an African-American golfer who played on the PGA Tour in the later 1960s and 1970s, but it wasn’t quite that easy. Through the 1950s no African-American could play on the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour was, in that era, run by the PGA of America, which is now the club professional branch of the sport. The PGA of America had a “caucasians only” clause in their bye-laws which prevented people like Charlie Sifford from playing in their events.

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This clause was only tested in the early 1960s by two other black pioneers of the sport – Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller. Rhodes played in the 1948 US Open, which is not administered by the PGA Tour or PGA of America, but could not play in standard PGA Tour events. In that era, African-American players had their own tour, similar to the Negro Leagues in baseball, called the United Golf Association. The tour was started in the 1920s and was later run by Joe Louis (the boxer) and Billy Eckstein, a big band leader, and Louis often played in events as an amateur. Rhodes and Spiller dominated that tour, as Sifford would later, and Lee Elder after him. Their major championship was the National Negro Open, which Sifford won seven times.

Rhodes and Spiller were the first pioneers of the game for African-Americans. They sued the PGA of America for the right to play in their events, and won the suit, but the PGA reacted by changing the titles of all their events to invitationals and invited only white players to play. It was not until the mid-1960s that the PGA relented and allowed all players to participate, which, similar to Major League Baseball and the demise of the Negro Leagues after the early 1950s, also led to the demise of the United Golf Association.

Sifford was a great player. Frank Beard, a one-time leading money winner on the PGA Tour, later in life told him, “We always knew how great a player you were, Charlie,” which brought a tear to Sifford’s eye. Sifford faced death threats when he played in the South, was continually harassed, and it was said that one time he pulled his ball out of a hole he was playing, only to find that some neanderthal had left feces for him at the bottom of the cup. He overcame all this to win two PGA Tour events, the 1967 Greater Hartford Open, and the 1969 Los Angeles Open, but one tournament Charlie Sifford never played in was The Masters.

In that era, winning a tournament on the Tour did not automatically qualify you for The Masters. The invitations were much more at the whim and fancy of the Augusta National, which is located in the deep South, and Sifford was never invited. One method of invitation, in the 1960s and 70s, was that all former Masters Champions were given a vote to invite one player not otherwise qualified. Only the Augusta National ever knew the results of those votes, but Sifford was never the one chosen.

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Every year at The Masters, an honorary ceremony occurs at the start of the tournament in which former players hit ceremonial tee shot. It started in 1963 with Fred McLeod and Jock Hutchison hitting the tee shots – and they would actually go on to play nine holes. After they passed, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen took over the honor of hitting the ceremonial tee shots, and only a tee shot. In the last few years, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus have done the honor.

Around 2006 I wrote a letter to Billy Payne, who I had met during the Atlanta Olympics, where he was the chairman of the Organizing Committee (ACOG). In that letter, I suggested to Payne that a nice tribute to Sifford’s career would be to invite him to participate and hit one of the ceremonial tee shots. I received back a nice thank-you-very-much letter from one of his minions, but Charlie Sifford never played or hit a tee shot at Augusta National during the Masters. And he should have.

Sifford was the Jackie Robinson of golf, and he should be better remembered. Like Robinson, who was followed by great baseball players such as Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, and Willie Mays, many top black players from the United Golf Association tour came to the PGA Tour, several of them with great success. Lee Elder, who won the National Negro Open four times, won four times on the PGA Tour, and eight on the Champions Tour, and in 1975 became the first African-American to play at The Masters.

There were others. I played the PGA Tour from 1975-79, and during that time, played with Elder numerous times. I also played with Rafe Botts, Jim Thorpe, Curtis Sifford (Charlie’s nephew), Chuck Thorpe (Jim’s older brother), Pete Brown (the first black to win a PGA Tour event, in 1964, which also did not get him into the Masters), Bobby Strobel, and a guy named Nate, who I played with in my first event at Phoenix, but I am sorry to say his last name now escapes me.

If you count that up, that is at least 9 African-American players on the PGA Tour in 1975-79, all following the large shoes of Charlie Sifford. Today, there is one, although he is a big one, Tiger Woods. When Tiger came along in 1996-97, people talked of the Tiger effect and how it would lead to a golf boom, especially among African-Americans. The boom never occurred, and in fact it went the other way, and there has especially been no boom among African-American golfers.

Golf is an elitist sport, and always has been. It costs a fair amount of money to play golf, as opposed to putting up a net and shooting hoops, or finding some old beat-up ball in the ghettos of Brazil and kicking it towards some nondescript goal. The socio-economic status of many African-Americans in the United States has never lent itself to allow them to play golf easily, not to mention the discrimination they have experienced by many golf clubs. Prior to the 1960s, many African-Americans got into golf and learned the game through the caddy yard, but golf carts have made caddies at most clubs an endangered species. The loss of that avenue into the sport, and the demise of the United Golf Association has meant that few African-Americans have had the opportunities to make it to the top of the sport in the last few decades.

So its been difficult for blacks to make it in golf. When they do, each and every one of them owes a tip of their cap to Charlie Sifford, the man who blazed the trail. All honor to his name.

About the Author
Bill Mallon played on the PGA Tour between 1975 and 1979 and made the cut at the 1977 US Open. After leaving the tour he became a orthopaedic surgeon, author on the history of the Olympic Games and consultant statistician to the IOC.