The death of pioneering African-American golfer Charlie Sifford earlier this week at the age of 92 rekindled the memory of a rather unpleasant telephone conversation we once had a dozen years ago a few months before the annual Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga.
At the time, I was covering golf for The Washington Post and serving as president of the Golf Writers Association of America. Our board of directors had wanted to honor Sifford at the organization’s annual awards banquet traditionally held the night before the tournament started at a venue about two miles from Augusta National. We’d pay his way, put him up in a hotel and even provide tickets to the tournament if he wanted to attend.
When I called Sifford at his home in Ohio to invite him to the dinner, he politely declined, sort of. To paraphrase, he said that while he greatly appreciated the gesture, “no way in hell” would he ever come to Augusta, let alone even think of setting foot on that golf course.
And who could blame him?
A former kid caddy who began playing as a professional in the 1940s, and smoking his signature cigar all along the way, Sifford never was allowed to play in the first major championship of the season, even though he clearly belonged. In his 20s and 30s, the prime years of any golfer’s career, the PGA Tour of that time had a ‘Caucasian-only” clause that forced talented black players to form their own circuit until that odious policy was finally dropped in 1961.
Instead, Sifford and other fine African-American players like Ted Rhodes, and later long-time Washingtonian Lee Elder, competed for a relative pittance at public courses like Langston in Northeast, D.C. Even when Sifford did play in PGA Tour events in the early 1960s, he endured unspeakable indignities—racial epithets from the galleries, feces at the bottom of flagsticks on the greens, even having to change his shoes in the parking lot because in some private clubs, blacks were not allowed in the locker room.
“It took a special person to take the things that he took,” Elder told the New York Times in 1992. “The tournaments that barred him, the black cats in his bed, the hotels where he couldn’t stay, the country club grills where he couldn’t eat. Charlie was tough and hard.”
Sifford was 39 when the PGA changed its segregationist rule, an age when most players of that era were on the downside of their careers. Still, he played at an extremely high level. In 1967, at age 45, he won the Greater Hartford Open, a big-time event and a victory that surely would allow him to play The Masters the following spring.
It never happened.
In 1969, he won another prestigious PGA Tour event, the Los Angeles Open, but once again, no Masters invitation. Both times, Augusta National officials cited a points system they had instituted to qualify, though many back then always thought it was a sham excuse for keeping Sifford and other black golfers out of the event.
Sadly, hardly any of his white playing peers at the time spoke up on his behalf, though a number of sports columnists around the country vented their outrage. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times led off one column by writing “OK, rest easy Jefferson Davis, put down the gun John Wilkes Booth….The Masters Golf Tournament is as white as the Klu Klux Klan….Everyone in it can ride in the front of the bus.”
Not until Elder won the 1974 Monsanto Open did the first African-American finally play in The Masters, in 1975. And twenty-two years later, a baby-faced 21-year-old prodigy named Tiger Woods became the tournament’s first black champion. In his remarks afterward, Woods made it a point to specifically thank players like Sifford, Elder and Rhodes for paving his way to the title.
Last year, Woods told the Associated Press that “it’s not an exaggeration to say that without Charlie and other pioneers who fought to play, I may not be playing golf. My pop likely would not have picked up the sport, and maybe I wouldn’t have either.”
That Sunday in April, 1997 when Woods won the tournament and his first of 14 major championships, shattering scoring records on his way to a remarkable 12-shot victory, I stood next to Lee Elder in the massive crowd surrounding the first tee as Woods was about to begin his historic final round. He had driven up from his home in South Florida the night before to bear witness, and as Woods was introduced, I looked over at Elder and saw tears streaming down his face.
Charlie Sifford wasn’t there that day, nor on any day of his remarkable life. What a shame.