Charlie Sifford was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1922. He loved golf, but only white people were allowed on private golf courses, so he got close to the game in the only way he could: by becoming a caddie at the age of 13. And he watched. And he learned.
At age 17, he was forced to flee Charlotte after he defended his mother from an attack by a drunk man by hitting him on the head. He headed for Philadelphia to stay with relatives. There he was able to play golf at a public course open to black players. Then it was off to the Army for service in the Pacific — he fought at Okinawa — during World War II. When the 26-year-old Sifford returned to the States, he aspired to be a pro golfer, but there were still barriers.
Blacks had organized into their own golf association since, from 1934 to 1961, the Professional Golf Association or PGA actually had a “Caucasian-only clause” in their by-laws.
Charlie met Jackie Robinson in 1948. A year earlier, Jackie became the first black player in Major League Baseball. Charlie asked him what he thought about Charlie breaking the color line in golf. Jackie told him it would be tough, and warned that people would threaten him and call him ugly names.
“Are you a quitter?” Robinson asked, according to a story Mr. Sifford retold in his 1992 autobiography, Just Let Me Play. “I said, ‘No, I’m not a quitter.’ ”
Meanwhile, Charlie kept playing in the black leagues, winning the National Negro Open so many times, they told him he should just keep the trophy. But the paychecks on the black tour were small and the courses were bad.
In his biography, Charlie told the story of how, in the 1950s, five blacks were convicted of trespassing on a public course in Greensboro, N.C. When a court ruled that a public course had to be open to anyone, the city leased the course to a private company that put new rules into place barring blacks. The cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and Charleston, S.C., all used similar tactics to block blacks from public courses.
According to this author, a turning point occurred in the fall of 1959 when Charlie played golf at a Jewish club in Los Angeles with Stanley Mosk, a progressive liberal lawyer, who was also the Attorney General of California. Stanley “asked Charlie why one of the best golfers he’d ever seen wasn’t playing on the PGA tour.” Charlie told him about the Caucasian clause. Stanley, well acquainted with discrimination himself, promised to fight that clause, and after two years, he succeeded in getting it removed in November 1961.
A somewhat different memory was offered by Stanley Mosk himself. In an article for “Sports Illustrated,” Mosk wrote:
“I was elected California attorney general in 1958 and became aware of the PGA’s Caucasian-only clause in ’59, when I received a handwritten letter from Charlie Sifford saying that he was qualified to be a PGA member and play in Tour events but that the PGA wouldn’t allow him to join or regularly play because of the color of his skin.”
It’s possible for both stories to be true. In any event, three years later, Sifford was awarded full PGA membership, the first African American to join the PGA Tour. He was 42 – already considered older than optimal for the game. Nevertheless, Sifford won the 1967 Hartford Open Invitational and the 1969 Los Angeles Open.
The author highlights the Hartford Open as a seminal point in Charlie’s career and in his life. At that tournament, “he noticed something different about the crowd…” For the first time, no one was rooting against him; in fact, the crowd was even encouraging him. When Charlie won:
“The crowd roared and clapped for fifteen minutes. Charlie wiped his wet eyes. He won $20,000. It felt like a million.”
Charlie did it; he had opened a door for others.”
In an Author’s Note, we learn that Tiger Woods credited Charlie with making his own career possible, and that Charlie received a number of honors later in life.
In 2004 he became the first black golfer admitted to the World Golf Hall of Fame, under the Lifetime Achievement category for his contributions to the game.
Tiger Woods with Charlie Sifford at WGC-Bridgestone in 2009. (Scott Halleran)
But one of the most meaningful honors to Charlie came on May 3, 2011, when Charlotte’s old Revolution Park Golf Course, where he wasn’t allowed to play growing up, was renamed for the man who won five straight United Golfers Association National Negro Opens, the 1967 Greater Hartford Open, the 1969 Los Angeles Open and the 1975 Senior PGA Championship.
At the ceremony, John R. Rogers Jr., administrator of the Charlotte Historic District Commission, revealed that when the course opened in 1930 as Charlotte’s first municipal course, there was one stipulation: if blacks played the course, ownership of the land would revert to the donor. No blacks were allowed.
Now it is called the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course. (In 2006, Charlie received an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews as a Doctor of Laws.)
On Nov. 24, 2014, President Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Sifford’s neck as he sat in a wheelchair in the East Room of the White House.
Charlie died on February 3, 2015 at the age of ninety-two.
Illustrator John Joven uses a retro, cartoon-style with sharp angles and a soft palette. Often multiple images surround the text on pages. The differing views provide support to the story and keep up interest levels.
Evaluation: The author omits some of the worst indignities Charlie endured, like the feces placed in the golf cups, but includes just enough information to let young readers know he was ill-treated. She places the emphasis, however, on Charlie’s talent, perseverance, and the support he received throughout his career. This is an inspiring story that may not be as well known to readers as analogous stories in other sports.
Published by Albert Whitman & Company, 2018
Charlie Sifford works out at a course in Los Angeles in 1957 after winning $11,500 in the Long Beach Open. Credit: Harold P. Matosian, AP