A Golfer Who Broke Barriers

Charlie_Sifford_1961When the late Charlie Sifford played golf, the hazards on the course extended far beyond sand traps and water holes.

The first African American to earn a Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Tour card endured racist slurs from the gallery, segregation in clubhouses, even death threats.

By breaking the color barrier in 1961, Sifford teed it up for other black players like Tiger Woods to compete. He has often been called the Jackie Robinson of golf.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Don Knabe to rename a portion of West 120th Street, between Western and Van Ness Avenues, after him.

“Charlie Sifford Way” will lead people right into Chester Washington Golf Course, which had been Sifford’s home course.

“It’s important that we honor Mr. Sifford’s tremendous accomplishments, so that all may be inspired by his courage and perseverance,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

Sifford was born 1922 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and learned to play golf while trying to make a living as a caddy in the Jim Crow South.

After serving a tour of duty in the Army, he honed his swing in the United Golf Association, which allowed golfers of all races to play. The tour had been established by black golfers excluded from the PGA. Sifford won the UGA’s most important event – the National Negro Open – half a dozen times, including five years in a row during the 1950’s.

By the time the PGA did away with its “Caucasian-only” membership clause in 1961, under legal pressure, Sifford was past his prime. Still, he won PGA Tour events in 1967 and 1969, as well as its Seniors’ Championship in 1975.

In 2004, Sifford became the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, which quoted him saying, “If you try hard enough, anything can happen.”

In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Sifford the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in a ceremony at the White House. Other recipients that year included Meryl Streep, Stevie Wonder, Tom Brokaw, Isabel Allende, and Stephen Sondheim.

When Sifford died in February at the age of 92, the president issued a statement calling him a golf legend who often faced “indignity and injustice even as he faced the competition… altering the course of the sport and the country he loved.”

“(Sifford) proved that he belonged,” the president added, “blazing a trail for future generations of athletes in America.”