Meanwhile, as the Civil Rights era started to take shape, the pressure was mounting on the PGA to strip out its offensive “Caucasian Only” membership clause from its bylaws. The first major hurdle was crossed in 1948 when African-American golfers Bill Spider and Teddy Rhodes finished with good enough scores at the Los Angeles Open to earn automatic entry into the PGA-sponsored Richmond Open in California. But paranoid tour officials blocked their entry. They also did some legal side-stepping by getting sponsors to agree to label their tournaments “Open Invitationals” in order not to invite black players to compete in the events.
Yet, for Sifford, some important groundwork had been laid. In 1957, he made history when he not only qualified for the Long Beach Open but won it, making him the first the African-American golfer to beat white players in a PGA co-sponsored tournament. Four years later he broke further ground when, under pressure from the California attorney general, the PGA permitted Sifford full membership on the tour.
It took a few years, but in 1967 Sifford made history again when he won the Greater Hartford Open—the first fully sanctioned PGA event ever won by an African American. Two years later he raised another trophy when he took home the top score at the 1969 Los Angeles Open. The excitement for everyone, both black and white, around Sifford’s wins was palpable.
“Charlie Sifford, Negro, 46, father of two, his own golf teacher, a short little man with a mustache, was a curious hero in a country-club sport,” wrote Sports Illustrated after the L.A. Open. “A black lady journalist raced onto the green and kissed him. Don Newcombe, the ex-Dodger pitcher, ran out and grabbed his hand. And huge, happy swarms of Charlie’s fans, all colors, surrounded him, tearfully delirious. Black guys who can’t play the game whooped, and white guys who’ve never seen a country club whooped.”
In all, Sifford would compete in some 422 PGA tournaments, coming in second twice, registering five third-place finishes, and winning nearly $350,000 in prize money. On the senior circuit, he was equally successful, winning the 1975 Seniors’ Championship and collecting $930,000 in winnings.
More importantly, he helped pave the way for future African-American golfers including Lee Elder, the first black to play the Masters in 1975; Calvin Peete, who notched 12 PGA victories, including The Players Championship; and, of course, Tiger Woods. “He took the punishment, the ridicule and he still persevered,” Earl Woods, Tiger’s dad, once said. “For that, he should always be remembered. Because nobody else did it but him. He was the first one.”
The most glaring admission from Sifford’s resume is The Masters, which did not begin inviting PGA winners to Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia until the 1970s. But the significance of Sifford’s achievements has not been lost on the still predominantly white golf world. In 2004, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, just the 104th athlete and first African American to receive the honor. Then, in early 2009, came the creation of the Charlie Sifford Exemption, which allows for the invitation of a player to the Northern Trust Open (formerly the Los Angeles Open) who represents the advancement of golf’s diversity.
Sifford’s autobiography, Just Let Me Play, was published in 1992. In 2014, President Obama presented the trailblazing athlete with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Sifford died on February 3, 2015, at the age of 92. In a statement, PGA President Derek Sprague said, “His love of golf, despite many barriers in his path, strengthened him as he became a beacon for diversity in our game. By his courage, Dr. Sifford inspired others to follow their dreams. … Golf was fortunate to have had this exceptional American in our midst.”