Leland Stein III

Golf Pioneer Charlie Sifford paved path for others.

In Uncategorized on April 6, 2015 at 9:49 pm

Sifford’s steadfastness and golf smarts allowed him to break many of golf’s rock solid racial barriers.

Can’t nothing make your life work if you aren’t the architect. – Terry McMillan


VALENCIA, Ca. – How bad do you want it? Can you put your pride aside to accomplish something that has the opportunity to be special and legendary? Do you have the vision to see the big picture in life? Are you the architect of your own destiny?

charles Sifford

Legend Charlie Sifford and Leland Stein at the L.A Open. – Jon Gaede photo

In the case of Jackie Robinson, he became the architect of his own destiny by the way he conducted himself and his unbending focus on the task at hand. He swallowed his enormous pride and fighter’s spirit for a bigger cause. Robinson knew that if he entered baseball and fought every person that called him a demeaning name, he would be a failure. Why? Because if he failed in the grand integration experiment, it would have taken years for another integration opportunity to be extended by Major League Baseball.

Well, Charles Sifford, who was born in 1922 in North Carolina and recently passed in February of 2015 at the ripe age of 92, found himself in a similar situation, breaking barriers in golf, only with a lot less fanfare, but no less the pain and resistance than his friend Robinson endured. Maybe, because of less visibility and press coverage afforded to Sifford’s quest to integrate the Professional Golf Association Tour, he endured and withstood even more degradation and contempt than Robinson. But Sifford had the vision and the will to make it against all odds.

Surely the White dominated sport of golf and the infra-structures that supported it (the Country Clubs and media) were rock solid in their clubhouse ways and determination to keep the sport all White. Weathering the sting of exclusion and missed opportunity (he never played in the Masters), Sifford, endured long enough to become the first African -American to win a PGA Tour event; he won the Hartford Open in 1967, where he shot a scorching 64 to outlast the charging field. Sifford also won the Nissan Open – then played as the the L.A. Open – in 1969 held at Rancho Park Golf Course. He overcame Harold Henning in a sudden death playoff.

During his career he won six Negro National Titles, before joining the PGA Tour in 1960 at the age of 39, long past his prime playing years. Besides the Hartford and L.A. Open titles, he won the PGA Seniors’ Championship in 1975 and the Suntree Classic held in Melbourne Australia in 1980 Sifford won $1,265,490 during his PGA career. The majority of the prize money came on the Seniors’ Tour ($924,145).

Before his passing, Sifford was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 by President Barack Obama, and an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews. Golfing great Lee Trevino referred to Sifford as the “Jackie Robinson” of golf, and Tiger Woods acknowledged that Sifford paved the way for his career.

This one-on-one interview conducted at the Valencia Country Club, with pioneer Sifford and I, whose autobiography, “Just Let Me Play”, says volumes about his quest to integrate the golf world.

Q: How did you get exposed to golf.

A: Well, I got a job as a caddie in North Carolina when I was 13. I could shoot par then. The thing about it was my dad, who was a laborer, made only $2.00 a week. I made that much caddying. The sad part is that with the golf cart, people like me, especially the young folk, have less opportunity to get exposed the game. Caddying was the life blood for Blacks that wanted to play golf.

Q: When did you get the fever for the sport.

A: As soon as I got on the course I felt it. I knew it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. At the time, it seemed like just a dream, because professionally the sport wasn’t accessible to Blacks back then.

Q: Who was instrumental in helping you realize your dream of being a golf professional.

A: I worked for Billy Eckstine as his personal pro for many years. He helped keep me in the game. I also hustled and played anywhere I could to make a buck . . . and, to just play for the love of the game. Also, Joe Louis help open the doors for the Blacks to play at the professional level. He stood up for us every chance he got.

Q: As you continued to play, you realized you had a special gift for the game, but the PGA was off limits to Blacks, what were your options.

A: We played in celebrity tournaments and worked with the top Black athletes and performers of that era. Louis had Teddy Rhodes as his personal pro. We played in many non-sanctioned PGA events. The UGA (United Golfer’s Association) became a nice opportunity for us to travel and play the game, as well as earn a small buck.

Q: Did you like the hustling golf life you were forced to indulge in.

A: No. I wanted to play 72 holes of golf and try to make the less mistakes and out think my opponents. I didn’t necessarily like hustling and the other stuff we had to do to survive, but I was forced to do that to put food on the table. I really wanted the opportunity to beat someone and earn the No. 1 trophy at the end of a tournament, that’s what its really all about. I wanted to get out there and walk the course, out think an opponent, out drive and out putt him.

Q: What is your recollection of legendary championship boxers “Sugar” Ray Robinson and Joe Louis.

A: Both loved golf. Robinson never could play too well, but he supported us. He really loved to play the game. Don Newcomb (ex-Dodger great) was another who was just like Robinson supporting us, and, our quest to make the Tour. But Joe Louis did as much as anyone. Louis was a big reason, along with California District Attorney Charley Moss, that the LA Open fought the PGA Constitution’s “Caucasians Only Clause” – it was stricken in 1961.

Q: How would you characterize your strengths as a golfer.

A: I used to always keep the ball in play. I wasn’t a great putter, but I was a decent putter. I had a good short game and I kept my ball in play always. Also, I think I was a smart player . . . I tried to think through situations. I had good recovery skills and could work the irons.

Q: What was the lowest round you shot. Did you shoot under 66.

A: I shot a lot of those. At Hartford I shot a 64 that led to me winning the tournament. I could shoot some numbers. The lowest I’ve shot is a 63.

Q: When were you playing your best golf.

A: I say that 1947 through 1960 I was swinging the clubs pretty good. I won the Long Beach Open in 1957, but it wasn’t a sanctioned PGA event, so I didn’t get invited to the Masters.

Q: Why aren’t more young Blacks on the Tour.

A: I think they just don’t have the will to endure the effort it takes. You have to put something into this game . . . you have to sacrifice a lot to get here. I sent my nephew (Curtis Sifford) to qualifying school, but he didn’t make it . . . it’s tough going. A lot of the youth today will not put up with the stuff I did back then. I had to be strong to deal with the stuff that was placed in front of me.

Q: What stuff did you have to put up with.

A: I don’t want to repeat the things that were said to me and about me, or rehash the threats. But let me tell you, I was the first Black to play in a PGA event in the South in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I can tell you I didn’t play too well because of the other things I had to deal with. They tried and tested my manhood, and, my humanity.

Q: Was it very frustrating being excluded from golf courses and not given the opportunity to compete.

A: Of course it was frustrating not being able to compete on the PGA Tour, especially when you could see there were many players that were out there that you knew you could compete with or were better than. In fact, there were a number of Black players that were very good golfers and enjoyed the game. Yes, it may have hurt to be told you can’t compete because of the color of your skin, but we went about our business and just tried to have fun. We felt if we stayed at it and kept working on our game, things would have to change. They eventually did, but I was too old when it opened up in 1974 for Lee Elder who played in the Masters.

Q: What will it take to get more Blacks involved in the game.

A: Well, it will be hard. Most of the urban area schools don’t play the sport in high school. They are use to playing basketball, football and baseball because the parents can take them anywhere to play those games. But to take a kid to the driving range to drive balls all day, well, most families have to work to make a living. Also, the cost of playing has increased and in many cases it’s not affordable.

Q: Has Tiger Woods presence changed the game in a way that more minorities are involved and maybe it will translate into more pros out on the Tour.

A: Sure his presence has change the Tour. Look at the galleries he has that follow him at every tournament. But, I don’t see anymore Tiger Woods’ coming behind him. On the Senior Tour a couple years ago there were five, Ben Morgan, Calvin Peete, Lee Elder, Jim Thorpe and me. Now there’s only Tiger. I’m not sure, but we seem to be going backwards (with diversity).

Q: So what do you think the future holds for diversity in golf.

A: To be a golfer you have to take it upon yourself. Your mother and father can’t make you play enough to be good at it. Just because Tiger has done so well, most people can forget about that. You can teach the game but you have to have the skill, and, the opportunity to play to make it happen.

Q: Do the youth of today recognize you and know what you’ve accomplished.

A: Many don’t know what I’ve done or the foundation myself and many others laid so we can have a Tiger Woods today. What the kids today need to know is that golf didn’t start in 1997, but in 1947. It’s a good thing what Tiger is doing, but most kids don’t know nothing better than Tiger Woods, that shouldn’t be. They should know where the game started from, they should know their history.

Q: You say golf started in 1947 what do you mean by that.

A: The UGA was a Black league that played in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, New York and Chicago. It was a group of Black players. We also had a few White players, too. But none of them could beat Teddy Rhodes or Bill Spiller.

Q: Are you bitter about the things you had to endure and the lack of opportunity available to you during your era.

A: No, I’m not bitter. If you go around being bitter at people you won’t live long. I’ve put all that negative stuff behind me and decided to look forward a long time ago. When I was going through what I did, I focused on proving that a Black man can play the game of golf as good as a White man. What I’ve tried to prove has been proven by Tiger Woods. I was too old when they let me play, but I never did learn how to play the game the best I could, because I had too many other things to worry about.

Q: How do you feel about what Woods has accomplished on the Tour.

A: Well, I’m really glad he has come along like he has . . . it really makes me smile . . .a big smile. They need some more Tiger Woods, but I don’t know if they will find any soon, because the majority of the youth are not into golf. What Tiger has accomplished is wonderful. There is tremendous pressure on him from all angles, but the way he has handled himself is special.

I’m very proud of what he has done and the way he has done it. I had breakfast with the kid this morning, and he understands and respects the players that played before him. He’s a very smart guy and knows how to handle what’s happening around him.

Q: Are you a role model.

A: Well, the parents are the real role models. But, I’m sure someone out there admires the trail I’ve blazed and the things I went through to get on the PGA Tour. We had our fun, but I always tried to make sure I didn’t do anything that would reflect bad on myself and others. I want respect and gave it. I just wanted to play the game and show people Blacks could play at the highest level, too.

Contact Leland Stein III at lelstein3@aol.com or on Twitter at LelandSteinIII

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