Charlie Sifford, considered the “Jackie Robinson of golf” for breaking the PGA Tour’s color line in 1960, died Tuesday in Cleveland. He was 92.
Born in 1922 in Charlotte, N.C., Sifford learned the game as a caddie. He won twice on the PGA Tour, at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open, but he is best remembered for forcing the PGA Tour to abandon its “Caucasian-only” clause and accept him as its first African-American member in 1960 at age 38.
As a playing professional, Sifford had to deal with threats and slights. During the 1952 Phoenix Open, one of the few events that African Americans could play, Sifford found human feces in the cup when he got to the first green. He received death threats over the phone at the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open and heard racial slurs as he walked the fairways. He finished fourth, and didn’t quit. He was sometimes prohibited from eating in the clubhouses of tournament courses, and he was never invited to compete in the Masters. Confronted with racism, Sifford followed the advice of Robinson, who broke baseball’s color line almost a generation earlier in 1947.
“Above all, you can’t be going after these people who call you names with a golf club,” Robinson told Sifford. “If you do that, you’ll ruin it for all of the black players to come.”
In 2014, Sifford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, joining Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only golfers to receive the honor.
“It was never just about the points,” President Obama said at the award ceremony. “Charlie says, ‘I wasn’t just trying to do it for me. I was trying to do it for the sport.'”
When the Presidential Medial of Freedom award was announced, Tiger Woods tweeted, “You’re the grandpa I never had. Your past sacrifices allow me to play golf today. I’m so happy for you Charlie.”
At the 2013 U.S. Open Woods talked about how much he owes Sifford and other African-American pioneers in golf.
“It was a tough time for Charlie to go through what he went through, but he paved the way for a lot of us to be where we’re at,” Woods said. “I know my dad probably wouldn’t have picked up the game if it wasn’t for what Charlie did.
“I’ve always called him my grandpa, the grandpa I never really had. I’ve gotten to know him through the years and it’s been fantastic. We owe a lot to him and all the pioneers that have paved the way for us to be here.”
Sifford was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.
During his induction ceremony, Sifford told of his first meeting with Palmer. They were playing in the 1955 Canadian Open and Sifford opened with a 63 to lead Palmer by one shot. He recalled Palmer standing in front of the scoreboard saying, “Charlie Sifford? How the hell did he shoot 63?”
“I’m standing right behind him,” Sifford said. “I said, ‘The same damn way you shot 64.’ That’s how we met.'”
Sifford also received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for his career as a pioneer.
He often attended the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, not far from his home in Ohio. During an interview with the Associated Press in 2000, Sifford said he was proud of the role in played in making the PGA Tour accessible to blacks.
“If I hadn’t acted like a professional when they sent me out, if I did something crazy, there would never be any blacks playing,” he said. ”I toughed it out. I’m proud of it. All those people were against me, and I’m looking down on them now.”
Many people in the golfing world expressed their condolences on Twitter.
Terrible loss for golf and me personally. My grandfather is gone and we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man. I’ll miss u Charlie.
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) February 4, 2015
My friend Charlie Sifford has passed at 92. A pioneer, a man of grace & dignity. He loved golf. I will miss you. RIP. pic.twitter.com/r2lNnIfN2I
— Gary Player (@garyplayer) February 4, 2015
RIP Charlie Sifford. I can’t begin to understand the hurt he endured, but the world is a better place bc he had the courage to persevere.
— Ben Crane (@bencranegolf) February 4, 2015
No one,not subjected to prejudice could imagine the degradation that Charlie Sifford endured. No sadder story exists than prejudice.#pioneer
— brandel chamblee (@chambleebrandel) February 4, 2015
So sad to hear of the passing of Mr. Charlie Sifford. A true pioneer for the game of golf. #thankyou
— Cheyenne Woods (@Cheyenne_Woods) February 4, 2015
Mr Charlie Sifford died tonite, the greatest African American Golfer most of you never heard of. RIP, Sir! #Presidential Medal of Honor
— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) February 4, 2015
The Associated Press contributed to this report.