Forty years after Charlie Sifford, golf’s Jackie Robinson, won the PGA Tour’s Los Angeles Open, the tournament — now known as the Northern Trust Open — has created a special Charlie Sifford exemption, an annual invitation into the event for a player who represents the advancement of diversity in the game.
“It’s a wonderful thing to give someone a chance,” Sifford, 86, said from his home in Cleveland.
Sifford endured years of threats, harassment and denied opportunities to become, in 1960, the first African-American to earn PGA Tour membership. Even then he encountered resistance when he tried to enter tournaments, and it wasn’t until the following year, after the California district attorney threatened legal action, that the PGA of America finally rescinded its Caucasians-only clause in its membership rules.
By that time Sifford was 39 and his best golf was behind him, but he won twice on Tour, at the ’67 Hartford Open and in L.A. in ’69, and also took the 1975 Senior PGA Championship. And while a revolving door of qualification standards prevented him from playing in the Masters, in 2004 he became the first black member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“Our hope is that the Charlie Sifford exemption will raise awareness of Mr. Sifford’s achievements, while continuing to broaden the game’s appeal,” said Rick Waddell, Northern Trust’s president and CEO. This year’s recipient will be chosen by tournament director Tom Pulchinski, with input from the Tour and Northern Trust, and will be announced shortly before the event, which will be held Feb. 19-22 at Riviera Country Club.
The announcement of the exemption, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and right before the inauguration of Barack Obama as president, draws attention to the event and to Sifford’s past by tapping into what promise to be two days of major reconciliation in the country’s racial history. “[Obama] proves that anything can happen if you put in the work,” says Sifford. “For 200 years the black man has been hiding behind a tree, waiting for the fruit to fall, and now he’s finally stepping out. Obama has a lot on his plate, but I hope he can prove that he can do it.”
Despite Sifford’s own achievements and those of Obama and even Tiger Woods — “he’s great young player,” Sifford says — Sifford is aware that his breakthrough has not led to a widespread penetration of minorities into the game. “We only have one player out there and maybe two on the senior tour,” Sifford says. “Golf is a tough proposition. Black kids don’t have much of a chance.”
Not many would have liked Sifford’s chances when he was born in segregated Charlotte, N.C., in 1922. At 13 he starting caddying for 60 cents a day, and learned to play the game between loops and after the course closed. Following a stint in the Army, he began playing professionally in 1947. There wasn’t much money in the game then, and virtually none for blacks, so Sifford supported himself by becoming the personal golf coach of big-band leader and singer Billy Eckstine. Sifford also won the National Negro Championship five straight times in the ’50s as well as the 1957 Long Beach Open, a PGA co-sponsored event.
“I wasn’t Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus,” Sifford says, “but I had a pretty good game.”
In the end, that was what it was all about for Sifford — the chance to test himself against the best in world.
“I didn’t do what I did for Tiger Woods or anyone else,” he says. “I did it for myself, because I wanted to and because I thought it was possible.”
Now, for a week at least, Sifford’s legacy will allow another player with the odds stacked against him to find out what is possible.