“He would be happy, I think, knowing that people were that concerned and appreciated what he did and what he had to go through,” his son, Charles Sifford Jr., says. “I think he’d been proud to know what’s going on right now.”
Sifford started caddying when he was 10 years old. He proved to be a quick study and was always in demand by the more accomplished players. When his family moved to Philadelphia, the 17-year-old got the only 8-to-5 job of his life in the shipping department at the local Nabisco plant.
“He did that for about three years and he said, no, that wasn’t for him.” Charles said. “He wanted to be outside the fresh air, chasing that little ball around. That’s what filled his life. That’s what he wanted to do. ”
After a stint in the Army during World War II, Sifford began to make a name for himself on the United Golf Association, winning the National Negro Open six times. He also won the 1957 Long Beach Open, where he competed against white pros, and at the end of the 1960 season, he was given an “approved player” card by the PGA.
A year later, the PGA struck down its Caucasian-only clause and by 1964, Sifford, then 42 years old, was a full member of what became the PGA TOUR. Although his prime years were past, Sifford would go on to win what is now known as the Travelers Championship in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open – now the Genesis Invitational and hosted by Tiger Woods – in 1969.
“There’s no guarantee he would’ve been great, but he never had the opportunity to prove how good he could have been,” Charles says. “That was the main thing. He never got the chance to prove how good he was. He just didn’t feel that he got recognition from the white world, the white golf world for his ability and when he did win, he didn’t really get a lot of recognition until he won the LA Open, because that was one of the big, big tournaments at the time when he won it. ”
That victory, which Sifford celebrated at Dodger great Willie Davis’ Center Field Lounge, remains his son’s favorite memory of his dad.
“It was the first time I saw him actually win one and I could see the excitement on his face,” Charles recalls. “He was extremely happy, and the fact that he won it at home (the family had moved to California when Charles was 9) really made it special.”
Charles says Sifford didn’t dwell on the discrimination he encountered as a Black man or the indignities he had to suffer in silence when he was at home with his family. He didn’t tell Charles about the country clubs that made him eat in the locker room rather than the restaurants. Or, how players like Gary Player – who inducted him into the WGHOF – and Lee Trevino and Gene Littler and Don January would eat with him in a show of support.
In fact, Charles didn’t know about some of the incidents – like the time when human excrement was left in the cup on the first green at the 1952 Phoenix Open where Sifford played in an all-Black foursome that was first off the tee or the death threats he faced when he became the first Black man to play in a tournament in the South at the 1964 Greater Greensboro Open – until he read his father’s aptly-named book Just Let Me Play.
“He never mentioned that at all to us – at least not to me anyway,” Charles says. “And people would threaten him and tell him if he came to the golf course, they were going to kill him and stuff like that. They’re just trying to deter him from playing. That was his passion. He wasn’t going to let them scare him away from it.
“It showed me that if you’re determined to succeed at something that you really love, you just have to fight your way through it, no matter what. And you just have to have a strong personality, determination and grit to fight through all the unnecessary discrimination that he faced. ”
Sifford, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the nation’s first African American president, Barack Obama, in 2014, wasn’t the only Black golfer of his era who wanted to play. There were others like Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller and Pete Brown, to name a few. But Sifford experienced the most success and became the public face of the struggle that eventually paved the way for players like Lee Elder, Calvin Peete and Tiger Woods, who calls Sifford the grandfather he never had.
“Tiger told me that when he was in contention, my dad would always send him a telegram that when he went to his locker on Sunday, the telegram was there,” Charles says. “He’d tell him to go out there, wishing him the best of luck and go and get that money.”
Charles says his dad was satisfied with what he accomplished, but that he was happy to pass the torch to Woods. He thinks he would also be pleased with the progress that has been made with the APGA, although Charles acknowledged there is more work to be done in attracting minorities to the game and making it affordable.
“The family didn’t look at it as though it was a trail blazer,” Charles says. “We just looked at it as he just wanted to play a game that he fell in love with when he was a little kid and wanted to be successful at it.
“And he just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time to forge his way through and to fight for the minorities in the game. He had the temperament which he needed and the ability to just let some of that stuff that’s going in one ear and out the other without reacting because he knew if he reacted, he would’ve made it worse. Not only for himself and then also for other minorities that was trying to get into the game. ”