Charles L. "Charlie" Sifford, a former caddie who overcame a plethora of obstacles a half-century earlier to earn his rightful place in golf history, died Feb. 3 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, at the age of 92.
“The USGA is saddened by the loss of Charlie Sifford,” said Thomas J. O’Toole Jr., USGA president. “We send our deepest sympathies to his family. Charlie was as tireless and driven a pioneer as golf has ever seen. He began in the game as a caddie, eventually earning a well-deserved place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. His work always kept opportunities in golf at the forefront and he was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The USGA salutes his legacy and his groundbreaking efforts in golf benefiting African-American professionals. He will be missed.”
In November, Sifford was among 18 Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama at the White House.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom “felt different than anything else,” said Sifford, referring to his 2004 induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame and the honorary doctorate he received from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in 2006. "They say what I did helped African Americans, but it went further."
Sifford was the first person of color to compete in PGA-sanctioned events following the 1961 abolishment of the “Caucasian-only” PGA of America membership clause. Throughout the world of golf, he was often compared to baseball’s Jackie Robinson, and he went on to win PGA Tour events in 1967 and 1969, as well as the 1975 PGA Seniors’ Championship.
Sifford also competed in 19 USGA championships, including 12 U.S. Opens and the inaugural U.S. Senior Open in 1980 at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where he finished fourth. He made his USGA debut at Winged Foot in the 1959 U.S. Open (T-32). His best U.S. Open finish was a tie for 21st in 1972 at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links.
“Charlie Sifford’s contributions to the game of golf and the culture of sports in our country should not be measured by victories alone,” said Robert Williams, director of the USGA Museum. “Sifford won tournaments, but in the much larger picture, he helped pave the way for so many in the game. His legacy is not about the records he broke, but the barriers he broke. He led by example, always handling himself with grace, class and dignity in the face of adversity. He opened doors that for too long had been closed, and today golf is a global game – one that embraces diversity and competitors of all backgrounds – in large part thanks to Sifford.”
Nine-time USGA champion Tiger Woods told The Associated Press in an email that he might never have taken up the game were it not for Sifford and unheralded African-American pioneers such as Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller. Woods has long called Sifford the grandfather he never had. Sifford and Woods' father, the late Earl Woods, became friends during Tiger’s junior golf career.
“It's not an exaggeration to say that without Charlie and the other pioneers who fought to play, I may not be playing golf,” Woods wrote. “My pop likely wouldn't have picked up the sport, and maybe I wouldn't have, either.”
Born on June 2, 1922, in Charlotte, N.C., Sifford became interested in golf as a boy. While he made a living through caddieing, he also had the opportunity to hone his golf skills. By age 13, he was playing par golf.
However, his advancement was limited by race discrimination in the Jim Crow era. Even though Sifford made significant strides in his career, he continued to be a target of harassment and death threats prior to and following the retraction of the "Caucasian-only" clause.
Sifford honed his game in the United Golfers Association, a tournament circuit established in the mid-1920s by black golfers that allowed golfers of all races to compete. He won the UGA's biggest event, the National Negro Open, six times, including five consecutive years from 1952 to 1956.
Information from The PGA of America and The Associated Press was used in this report.