Charles Luther Sifford (1922-2015)

Golfer Charlie Sifford smiling as he wins the 1969 Los Angeles Open
Golfer Charlie Sifford smiling as he wins the 1969 Los Angeles Open
Photo from the LA Times Photographic Collection (CC BY 4.0)

Charles Luther Sifford, the first Black player to participate in the PGA Tour and the first named to the World Golf Hall of Fame, was born on June 2, 1922, in Charlotte, North Carolina. His parents were Pasco Sifford from Charlotte and Eliza Sifford Darkins from South Carolina. Charles’ siblings were Eddie, Bessie, Willie, Elizabeth, and Frazier. In 1939, at 17, Charles began his first golf lessons under the tutelage of golfer Sutton Alexander, the owner of Carolina Club. He continued those lessons until he was 20.

In 1952 Sifford won the first United Golf Association’s National Negro Open. He would repeat the victory five more times. He played in the Phoenix Open with the legendary heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. During the Jim Crow era, when the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) maintained a Caucasian-only membership clause, Sifford failed to gain entry into the PGA Tour in 1952. His attempt to desegregate the Tour, however, led to death threats and continuous racial hostility.

Eight years later, in 1960, Sifford received a PGA Tour player card at the age of 39, thus being the first African American golfer to play on the Tour. The Caucasians-only clause was dropped in 1961. Sifford was invited to play in the Greater Greensboro Open in North Carolina that same year. However, when he reached the first hole, he was surrounded by police for his protection and was subject to the open hostility of the fans. He, nonetheless, continued to compete and finished fourth in the tournament. In 1957, he gained his first PGA tour victory, winning the Long Beach Open in California.

A decade later, Sifford won the high-profile Greater Hartford Open in 1967 by one stroke and shot a final-round 64 at Wethersfield Country Club in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Two years later, he won the Los Angeles Open (now called The Genesis Invitational). He shot a 28 on the back nine of his opening round and defeated the South African golfer, Harold Henning, who had previously won over 50 tournaments globally to make it to the playoff.  Sifford received a check from the Los Angeles Chamber & Commerce for $20,000 and the trophy. He also won the PGA Seniors’ Championship in 1975.

In 2004, Sifford became the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame at a ceremony in St. Augustine, Florida. Two years later, in 2006, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland. He received the Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in 2007. In 2011, Sifford was honored by the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation when it changed the name of Revolution Park Golf Course to Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course at Revolution Park. In 2014, in a White House ceremony, U.S. President Barack Obama awarded Sifford the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Charles Sifford was married to Rose Crumbley, and they parented two sons, Charles Luther Sifford Jr. and Craig Sifford. Charles Luther Sifford, who earned over $1 million as a professional golfer, died in Cleveland, Ohio, on February 3, 2015. He was 92.