Charlie Sifford would work it cut, reaching up in the sky now and then, as he said, for the courage that a black golfer would need. And a few hundred miles away, at a tournament near San Francisco that was supposed to conflict with the Los Angeles Open in a year of total war between the players and the PGA, the receipts would get lifted. Yeah, golf's first robbery. And that is how it began last week, the year of peace and tranquillity on the pro tour. A Negro wins the first tournament—in a playoff over a South African, at that—and the Alameda Open has a $20,000 heist. Wonderful. Hold onto your kangaroo bags, folks. Before 1969 is over, Arnold Palmer will become a soul singer and Charlie Sifford will replace Clifford Roberts as tournament chairman of the Masters.
Grand old Charlie had to win at L.A. It was his championship from the first day, when he shot a 63. He started moving everybody to the back of the bus on that round with a six-hole stretch on the second nine in which he went seven under par. Five birdies and an eagle it was, and a 28, a foolish figure in sport that has no place except on the jerseys of flankers and cornerbacks. After that he just shot par 71s at Rancho Park, the municipal course which hosts the L.A. Open.
Par would ordinarily have been good enough, but the field kept after Sifford. Harold Henning, a slender, handsome South African, finally caught him, even passed him up by a stroke, on the tournament's final nine holes. Sifford had to rub the medal around his neck, and look up at the sky for some courage. He did that, and he got a birdie at the 16th hole to draw back into a tie, and then he nailed a nine-iron into the first sudden-death green that bit the turf and snuggled up about four feet from the cup. Henning, still off the green in 2, could manage no better than a par, and when Sifford very carefully rapped in that birdie the moment was electric.
Charlie Sifford, Negro, 46, father of two, his own golf teacher, a short little man with a mustache, was a curious hero in a country-club sport. A black lady journalist raced onto the green and kissed him. Don Newcombe, the ex-Dodger pitcher, ran out and grabbed his hand. And huge, happy swarms of Charlie's fans, all colors, surrounded him, tearfully delirious. Black guys who can't play the game whooped, and white guys who've never seen a country club whooped.
January 20, 1969
Sifford had won once before, of course, at Hartford last year. But that victory was lost in the heat and boredom of pro golf's late-summer swing when all of the major championships have ended and only the nonwinners and the non-rich are in there scratching. This one was far more beautiful. The L.A. Open goes back to 1926. It is the second oldest event on the PGA tour. It has plenty of prestige. And now it had started off a new year with Charlie Sifford, an old man, a black man, a man with a fall-down, creaking caddie's swing, earning $20,000.
In spite of pro golf's Civil War of 1968, the tour is richer than ever this year. Already there are 32 tournaments scheduled. Fifteen others are waiting in line, and the total purse money is expected to top $6 million. Last year's 45 troubled tournaments were worth only $5.5 million.
The pros probably should feel a little indebted to the sponsors of the L.A. Open for being among the first to cast their lot with the players in their argument with the PGA. But pro golfers rarely feel indebted to anyone, and they don't understand why the event isn't worth $200,000 instead of a paltry $100,000 and why it cannot go back to one of the fine country clubs—Riviera, for example—instead of being staged on a municipal course across the street from a car wash and a fried-chicken takeout emporium.
The money question merits no comment, but the matter of Rancho Park is something else. Let's just say it is, ah, a distinctive golf course. It gets a fantastic amount of play. As Sifford said one day, "You make your starting time here from year to year." The clubhouse is about the size of a small insurance office; the practice range, shaved of grass, is enclosed by a high fence and looks like a giant batting cage. Last week there were no banners or signs proclaiming that this was the site of the L.A. Open. To get there, one simply drove out Pico Boulevard, slowed down near the Hello, Dolly! set piercing the smog above 20th Century-Fox and turned left at the car wash.
If a spectator got lost and didn't arrive until Saturday's third round, he missed seeing many of golf's top names. The roll call of shooters who blew the 36-hole cut and thus escaped Rancho Park read like a couple of past Ryder Cup teams: Gene Littler, Doug Ford, Art Wall, Bob Rosburg, Bob Goalby, Ken Venturi, Paul Harney, Bill Maxwell, Jerry Barber, Johnny Pott and Lionel Hebert, to cite a few.
There were some old reliables, to be sure. Arnold Palmer, fresh from five days of shooting commercials in Palm Springs and with a speeded up swing that bothered him, was hanging around the leader board. So were Billy Casper, George Archer, Mason Rudolph, Bruce Devlin and a couple of veterans whose names loomed illustriously high—Henning and Dave Hill. But among the early leaders that the show-biz-dotted gallery had the pleasure of following if it wanted to be where the best golf was played were Tommy Shaw, Ken Ellsworth, Jimmy Walker Jr., Bob Smith, Roy Pace, Wayne Yates, Grier Jones and Robert Payne.
The situation of old Charlie Sifford leading safely for three rounds, and being challenged largely by the unnotables, led to some eerie conversations in the galleries: "Did you see Payne's shot on nine?" "Going out to pick up Yates and Ellsworth on 13?" "What'd Shaw get on the front?" When was the last time in a big tournament that the three men in the last pairing, the feature pairing, were named Sifford, Shaw and Payne? Nobody asked, "Which one's Sifford?" Charlie they knew from a lot of years. Shaw and Payne were sort of interchangeable, however—both of medium build, both in their mid-20s, both from Illinois—except that Tommy has yellowish hair.
By Sunday only Sifford mattered. The Shaws and Paynes will wait for other days. Charlie had done a lot of laughing on Thursday because when you hole a 40-yard wedge shot and drop every putt you walk up to, there isn't anything to do but giggle and shake your head. Then the first 71 had come, and the next 71, and Henning, and sudden death, and it had been a long time between smiles. But finally it was check-accepting time and interview time, and the man who had shot the 63 was smiling once again.
"It used to be there was only Charlie Sifford out here," he said later. "It's a little easier now. There are seven or eight Negro players [six played at L.A.], and that makes it easier. I started playing because I realized one day that I could hit the ball just as easy as I could hand the club to somebody else.
"This game's not simple. It's hard. It takes 24 hours a day to play it. I come to the course, I'm at work. I'm working the golf ball. Only once I can remember getting any help. Julius Boros, he's an old man like me, and an old friend, he told me to do something with my hands that would help me play better as I get older. That's about the only tip I ever got."
Sifford must have used it. Only one player in the field hit more fairways than he did for 72 holes, and only three men were able to hit more greens in regulation. And maybe nobody looked at the sky as often.
"I got one real thought about this," Charlie said. "The Lord gave me some courage to stay in there when it got close. I don't know whether I proved that the black man can play golf, but I proved that Charlie Sifford can."