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Charlotte Area News

Mecklenburg County Commemorates Charlie Sifford

Ben Bradford

Like Jackie Robinson did for baseball, so did Charlie Sifford for golf. Sifford broke golf’s color barrier, becoming the first African-American on the PGA Tour in 1960. 

Sifford died earlier this month in Charlotte Ohio at the age of 92. Mecklenburg County honored him Thursday, holding a reception with friends, family, and a lot of golfers at Revolution Park in South End.

Before the program started, Karlon Harris was outside on the golf course that holds Sifford’s name. Harris says he took up golf late, in his 40s, but he now works at the course part time. He says he also learned late the part Sifford played so he could.

“I always thought, because I’m kind of a few generations after Charlie, that golf kind of started with Tiger Woods and some of those guys, but to hear that there wouldn’t be a Tiger Woods without Charlie Sifford is a great thing,” says Harris. “So, I feel privileged and blessed to be able to play this great sport and to be able to play it at a course, which was named after Mr. Sifford.”

Inside the reception, that was the prevailing sentiment of the more than 100 in attendance, including several professional and former professional golfers.

“When I went out on the tour he took me under his wing and taught me everything I know,” said Walter Morgan, a three-time PGA senior tournament winner. “And if it weren’t for him, I’m sure I wouldn’t have survived the way I did, so I’m grateful to him and I owe him everything that I’ve done.”

“It was just an honor to have someone that can open the gates of a game that I loved,” said Andre Springs, the golf coach and athletic director at Livingstone College. “If it had not been for Charlie, I would not be playing golf today.”

Sifford, born in 1922, grew up in Charlotte, and took up golf as a 10-year old caddie at Carolina Country Club.

He began competing regularly as a professional in the late 1940s, and won the Negro National Open five times in the 1950s. But, he was barred from golf’s major league, the PGA Tour, which had a Caucasian-only rule.

He pushed for admittance, and won an exemption usually reserved for international players in 1960. A year later, the PGA removed the racist rule, and Sifford became a regular on the tour. But he still struggled for acceptance, as Sifford explained in a 1992 interview with host Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

“At the beginning I wasn’t allowed into the clubs, and I had to go into the locker room to eat,” he told Gross. Sifford said that didn’t change until 1964 or 1965.

Credit Ben Bradford / WFAE
Sifford's friend and 1960s PGA colleague, James Black, speaks at the reception.

At the reception, another 1960s African-American golfer, James Black said, Sifford’s courage, and prodding, kept him playing, despite mistreatment on and off the course.

“He was our leader. We are his disciples. You had a lot of great African American golfers came behind him,” said Black. “He became a legend because of his work.”

Last fall, Sifford received another commendation, America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama. He said Sifford “bent the arc of the nation toward justice.”

Sifford described playing in the segregated South, during the Civil Rights Movement, as perhaps the most difficult. He especially, singled out his return to his native state in 1961, to play in Greensboro.

“I knew that Greensboro was the first time that I played in the South at a PGA Tournament, and it was really tough,” said Sifford in a 2004 speech.

The Charlotte Observer reports he found armed police officers standing by the crowd at the first hole. He went back to play the course again the following seven years.

Despite his courage and his place in history, at the reception Richard Highland said he thinks Sifford is overlooked in Charlotte.

“He got worldwide recognition other places, but I don’t know if he got the recognition he deserved here in the Charlotte area, though,” said Highland.

In 2011, Mecklenburg County renamed the Revolution Park golf course the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course. The county also says it will posthumously add a plaque inside the center to commemorate his Presidential Medal of Freedom. But for Sifford, perhaps the most meaningful honor was his induction as the first African-American golfer in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

“I’m in the World Hall of Fame with all the players,” said Sifford. “So, that little golf I played was all right, wasn’t it?”