The two-time PGA Tour winner played a key part in the PGA Tour’s modernisation in the mid to late twentieth century as the organisation grappled with a society in transformation

Equality pioneer Charlie Sifford dies

Charlie Sifford, the first African-American to become a member of the PGA Tour, passed away last night after a month-long battle following a stroke.

The two-time PGA Tour winner played a key part in the PGA Tour’s modernisation in the mid to late twentieth century as the organisation grappled with a society in transformation.

Sifford, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, became the first African-American inductee of the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2006, St. Andrews University awarded him an honorary degree as a Doctor of Laws, and in 2007 he was the recipient of the Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

Most notably, last year, President Barack Obama presented Sifford with the highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Sifford became only the third golfer to receive the accolade after Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

With golf being a traditionally conservative game, in the rapidly evolving American society of the mid-twentieth century the Professional Golfers Association found it difficult to keep up. As the governing body became the last major sporting organisation to exclude players on the grounds of race, slowly but surely, black golfers began to find their voice.

Societal pressure led to the PGA removing its Caucasian-only clause in 1961, but as Sifford became the first black member of the Tour that year, inequality was still rife amongst the professional ranks. He had rights to compete, but was still restricted to certain locker rooms and subject to clubhouse access restrictions.

Stories of armed guards escorting black players during rounds, death threats, excrement being left in holes and unfulfilled hole-in-one prizes are remarkably true. Despite several Tour victories from African-American players in the 1960s and 70s, it wasn’t until 1975 that a black player teed it up at The Masters. That honour was bestowed to Lee Elder, another successful and celebrated golfer from an underprivileged background.

Building on the trailblazing work of Joe Lewis, the boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World-cum-scratch golfer and golf philanthropist who financially backed him and other black players, Sifford was able to become the professional face of ethnic minority golfers in the United States. Louis’ legacy plays a popular role in golf today as his initiative, The First Tee, introduces the game to kids in the United States and beyond.

Sifford would finish first at two PGA Tour events in the late sixties and win one Senior PGA Tour event at the Suntree Classic in 1980. He also won the 1975 PGA Seniors’ Championship, five years before it became a Champions Tour event and eventual major.

‘It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Charlie, and the other pioneers who fought to play, I may not be playing golf’, wrote Tiger Woods in a letter to the Associated Press. Woods’ father Earl and Sifford became friends as Tiger progressed as a young golfer, with the 14-time major winner calling the equality vanguard the grandfather he never had.

-Dr Charles L. ‘Charlie’ Sifford, golfer, born 2nd June 1922; died 3rd February 2015