Charlie Sifford: the Jackie Robinson of Golf

Struggling to break the color barrier in the Professional Golfers Association five decades ago, Charlie Sifford got a tip from Jackie Robinson, who had done the same thing for Major League Baseball. "You can’t be going after these people who call you names with a golf club,” Robinson told him. “If you do that, you’ll ruin it for all of the black players to come.”

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That was sage advice because Sifford, who passed away on Feb. 3 at age 92 in Cleveland, had a hotter temper than Robinson. But he kept his cool and in 1961 became the first full-time African American member of the PGA tour.

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Here are some facts about the trailblazing athlete.

  • After an arrest in North Carolina for knocking out a racist tormentor with a bottle, Sifford lived with relatives in Philadelphia, where he discovered a golf course where blacks were allowed to play.
  • In the early 1950s, singer Billy Eckstine hired Sifford to be his personal assistant and golf instructor.
  • In the all-black United Golfers Association in the 1950s, he won the National Negro Open five times.
  • Harassed by spectators who covered his ball with empty beer cans at the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open, Sifford still managed to shoot a 68 and finished fourth in the tournament, according to an account in the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle.
  • At the Hartford Open in 1967, he became the first African American tour member to win a PGA event, the first of his three tournament victories, and went on to be elected to the Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.
  • After receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2006, he took to signing his name "Dr. Charlie Sifford."
  • In 2014, he became the third golfer to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

 

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Here's Sifford in his playing days, demonstrating his technique.

 

Credit: Harold P. Matosian/AP

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