Charlie Sifford: golf's first Black professional who paved the way for Tiger Woods
Updated 8:29 AM ET, Fri July 2, 2021
When he politely asked again after participating in events solely for Black players, he was on the receiving end of racist abuse or even death threats.
But Sifford did not give up.
With the backing of California attorney general Stanley Mosk and with fellow trailblazer Jackie Robinson by his side, Sifford became the first Black player to play on the PGA Tour in 1959.
And if you visit the Tiger Woods exhibition at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., you'll see a photo of Sifford.
In breaking through the 'Caucasian only' clause in golf, Sifford helped open the door for other Black golfers, including the most famous Black golfer of all time, Woods.
And it's something Woods recognized, saying in 2015 following Sifford's death that he himself might not have been a professional golfer if it hadn't been for Sifford.
"He's like the Grandpa I never had," Woods said after a practice round in advance of the 2015 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, the day after Sifford's death. "It's been a long night, and I'm sure it will be a long few days. He fought, and what he did, the courage for him to stick with it and be out here and play.
"I probably wouldn't be here (without Sifford). My dad would never have picked up the game. Who knows if the clause would still exist or not? But he broke it down."
While Sifford was the first Black player to make it through in golf, he had someone close to him to lean on.
Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball as a player in 1947, was a friend of Sifford's, and from his own experiences, passed on some advice to the golfer before he started his journey to make it onto the Tour.
"Jackie told him that he's going to have to face up to a lot of things, not respond to a lot of things because once he did that, it would be harder for him and harder for the people coming up behind him," Charles Sifford, Charlie's son, remembers.
"So he kept a stiff upper lip, bit his tongue and just dealt with what was presented towards him because he knew if he messed up that it would be even harder for the next guy coming along."
Having to move
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1922, Sifford got into golf through the only avenue available to a young, Black kid -- caddying.
But he wanted to play the game -- at the age of 13, he could shoot a par round of 18 holes -- and not carry someone else's bag.
However, growing up in the age of segregation, opportunities for him to gain experience on courses weren't easy to come by.
He did eventually begin playing professionally in 1948, but -- because of the so-called "Caucasian only" clause which blocked Black players from playing with their White counterparts -- Sifford had to settle for playing in Black-only competitions.
By the time Sifford was in his 30s, segregation laws were slowly being abandoned, but golf proved less quick in moving with the times.
"In 1959, you still had the 'Caucasian only' clause, and it was easy to see how it could persist because golf was played on these private clubs, and they were able to continue to enforce the segregation rules," Nancy Churnin -- author of "Charlie Takes His Shot: How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf" -- told CNN Sport.
"So if you can't step foot in these private clubs, how are you going to play?"
Sifford's journey to play on the PGA Tour was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was something he worked to achieve for years.
His first attempt to break onto the Professional Golfers' Association of America (PGA) Tour in 1952 was met with vitriol and racial pressure.
At the Phoenix Open, Sifford and his all-Black foursome -- which included the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis -- found excrement in the cup of the first hole and had to wait nearly an hour for it to be replaced.
Unable to display his ability with all the best players, Sifford took his talents elsewhere -- to great success.
He won the United Golf Association's National Negro Open six times, securing consecutive victories from 1952 through 1956.
However, his dream was to showcase his abilities on the biggest stage in golf with the best in the business, and that meant making some sacrifices, as his son, Charles, remembers.