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A Rare Smile

In 1967, after years of racist abuse, Charlie Sifford broke through for a victory. Twice

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Charlie Sifford. Western Open. Photo: Laura Ptaszkiewicz
The years of indignities that Charlie Sifford suffered on and off the course forced him to develop thick skin and an instinct to fight for what he thought was his. “The things he went through did not go down well with him,” Sifford’s friend and fellow pro Larry Mowry told Golf Digest. “Let’s be honest: Charlie could be difficult.” Photo: Laura Ptaszkiewicz

The following is an excerpt from “The Year Is: 1967.” Click here to read the full feature from TGJ No. 6.

At the 1952 Phoenix Open, Charlie Sifford and his all-black foursome, which included Hall of Fame boxer Joe Louis, looked down into the cup on the first hole to find it filled with excrement. In November 2014, President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sifford in the East Room of the White House. In between, Sifford’s life was filled with the satisfying highs of breaking barriers on and off the course along with the terrifying lows of institutional and individual racism.

Golf may have been the whitest of all major American sports when Sifford, then 39 and already past his best years, became the first African-American to earn a PGA Player card in 1960. (It still took pressure from the legal system for the PGA of America to drop its “Caucasians Only” clause a full year later.) Jackie Robinson told Sifford one thing when they discussed his goal to play on the best tour in the world: Don’t be a quitter. Sifford quickly learned what he meant, suffering racist taunts at nearly every event, service refused at restaurants and hotels, and death threats.

And yet there he was in 1967, winning the Greater Hartford Open at 45 years old, becoming the first African-American to win on the PGA Tour. Remarkably, Sifford wasn’t done, winning the Los Angeles Open two years later. But even those accomplishments didn’t open every door. It wasn’t until 1975, well after Sifford was on the Senior PGA Tour, that the Masters invited its first African-American player.

The years of indignities that Charlie Sifford suffered on and off the course forced him to develop thick skin and an instinct to fight for what he thought was his. “The things he went through did not go down well with him,” Sifford’s friend and fellow pro Larry Mowry told Golf Digest. “Let’s be honest: Charlie could be difficult.” So when he did smile, as in this photo the week after his first PGA Tour victory at the Greater Hartford Open, it was a genuine event. Photo: Old Golf Images/SBM
So when he did smile, as in this photo the week after his first PGA Tour victory at the Greater Hartford Open, it was a genuine event. Photo: Old Golf Images/SBM