Charlie Sifford: A League of His Own
Charlie Sifford was the first.
But he made sure he wouldn’t be the last.
Born in 1922, Charlie Sifford fell in love with the game of golf at a young age. By thirteen, he was already caddying around his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. By seventeen, he had moved north to Philadelphia.
A few months after arriving in the City of Brotherly Love, Sifford had a chance encounter with a gentleman named Waymon Mack, who happened to be carrying a bag of golf clubs. When Sifford asked where he was headed with the clubs, Mack responded, “I’m going to Cobbs Creek”.
The rest, as they say, was history.
Charlie Sifford’s move north, like so many other black Americans at the time, was more than just a move – it was a chance to live unencumbered by the restrictions of Jim Crow. At Cobbs Creek, his skin color didn’t matter. He was welcome to play, and he did; every weekend, often alongside Waymon Mack and golf giants Howard Wheeler. As he notes in his 1992 autobiography Just Let Me Play, “I was delighted to see both blacks and whites playing side by side there. Here was a place I could play without having to worry about some groundskeeper coming by to run me off the course.”
In 1948, Sifford turned pro and joined the United Golf Association. Just four years later, he won the UGA’s Negro National Open. Then he won the next four, plus the Rhode Island Open in 1956, and the Long Beach Open in 1957.
At the time, golf was still a “caucasian only” game for many clubs and leagues. In 1961, after the PGA tour officially sunsetted the policy, Charlie Sifford became its first black member. While his hard work had certainly paid off and shattered ceilings, the move didn’t come without its fair share of difficulties. By that point, Sifford had long been the target of blatant, cruel racism. After joining the PGA, the racist shouts he had been experiencing turned into death threats. Real ones. The toll of which he would carry with him the rest of his life.
Sifford pushed on despite it all, winning the 1963 Puerto Rico Open, the 1967 Greater Hartford Open Invitational, 1969 Los Angeles Open, the 1971 Sea Pines championship, the 1975 Northern Ohio PGA Championship, and the 1980 Suntree Senior PGA Tour Classic. In 2004, he became the first black golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and he made his final Champions Tour appearance in 2011 at the age 89. Three years later, he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Charlie Sifford passed away in 2015 at the age of 92.
His extraordinary life, as a player and person, did more than just break barriers. It created footsteps for others to follow, including one of the best players to ever touch the game – Tiger Woods. Woods has long said he doesn’t know if he would’ve ever picked a club if it weren’t for Sifford, calling him the grandfather he never had, even naming his son, Charlie, after him.
Charlie Sifford is often called “the Jackie Robinson of golf”.
But he was very much in a league of his own.