There he stood, preparing to address the crowd at the Black Fox in Los Angeles: Charles Luther Sifford, golfer, born 46 years ago in North Carolina, the son of a factory hand. His friends, soul brothers and sisters all, had gathered to laud him and applaud him, and to bring gifts to Charlie Sifford at the Black Fox, which is a nightclub cool and smoky located among the white man's oil wells, with Beverly Hills on one horizon and Watts on another. It was a rare occasion, for this day—Feb. 3—had been proclaimed Charlie Sifford Day throughout Los Angeles. The banks did not close for it, but there had been a small, spirited parade for Charlie—11 newly washed cars purring up 103rd Street, which was dubbed Charcoal Alley during the riots of 1965. Earlier Charlie had gone downtown to City Hall where the mayor of L.A., Sam Yorty, had jovially greeted him as "Mister Charlie," which broke everyone up. And as a sort of topper to the ceremonial part of it all, the Watts Chamber of Commerce announced that he, Charlie Sifford, a Negro who struck it rich in the white athlete's field of professional golf and who had just won the town's own Los Angeles Open, was to be the first man inducted into the Watts Hall of Fame.
Even though he is ordinarily a laconic man given to solemn consumption of an endless supply of large cigars, when Charlie squinted out at the people gathered in the Black Fox that night, he seemed quite moved. "It's just so wonderful to think that a black man can take a golf club and become so famous," he said. His friends applauded, then Charlie added quietly, "I just wish I could call back 10 years."
Charlie Sifford had spoken the truth: he had taken a golf club and he had become famous. Even quite rich. The capstone to his success, so far, was his $20,000 victory in the Los Angeles Open. The fact that Charlie Sifford happened to beat Harold Henning who happened to be a product (if not necessarily a practitioner) of South African apartheid was not lost on American black men. Negro newspapers were calling Charlie Sifford the epitome of Black Is Beautiful. Intrepid white reporters were making him uncomfortable (and uncooperative) by pressing him for quotes on everything racial from Nat Turner's confession to Muhammad Ali's conviction. His mail was up to 200 letters a week, a lot of it from Negro kids who lug bags around the nation's golf courses and dream about making it themselves in a sport that has never before had very much of a place for them.
Oh, the mantle of fame is upon Charlie Sifford; he is a celebrity in 1969, no doubt. Yet in a sadder but more significant sense, Charlie Sifford is just a survivor, a man of stamina and strong will who simply stayed on his feet while others fell. If ever a medal of solid gold is struck in the likeness of Charlie Sifford (and it must include that rocket of a cigar in his mouth) it will be to honor more his endurance than his victories, more his persistence than the brilliance of his game. He managed to outlive, out-wait and, in a way, outgolf the years of Jim Crow in the Professional Golfers' Association.
March 31, 1969
It was not until November 1961, when Charlie Sifford was a vintage 38-year-old and other major sports had long since been integrated, that the PGA moved to wipe out its regulation restricting membership to "professional golfers of the Caucasian race," and thus opened all of its tournaments to blacks. The PGA did not generate this action out of some intrinsic insight into the family of man (or even into the fraternity of golf). It did not act, in fact, until the attorney general of California had, quite publicly and quite legally, humiliated the association. The attorney general then was one Stanley Mosk, who later became celebrated for his scathing description of the John Birch Society as "little old ladies in tennis shoes." In 1961 he treated the doughty PGA as if it were simply a little old lady in golf shoes by forcing it to move its forthcoming national championship right out of Los Angeles and off to the Aronimink Golf Club, Newtown Square, Pa. Grounds for the eviction were that racial discrimination as practiced by the PGA did not jibe with the sovereign laws of California. Stanley Mosk has always been remembered by blacks for his part in that episode: the day after Sifford won the L.A. Open this year, a telegram arrived at Mosk's home. It said: "Thank you for opening the door for the Charlie Siffords of this world."
Of course, there is only one Charlie Sifford of this world and if Mosk's action opened the door for him, it was Charlie's own determination and patience that widened the gate so other black men could come in. For a variety of reasons that arise not so much from the state of the sport as from the general social and economic conditions of America today, not many black men have come through the gate behind Charlie. At the moment there are, including Sifford, 10 touring Negro professionals. Jack Tuthill, PGA tour director, says there probably would have been even fewer had there not been two competing schools to qualify rookies in 1968—one the regular PGA session, the other organized by the rebellious players' group, the APG. Obviously golf is not about to sprout a crop of black Arnold Palmers, and it probably isn't even going to produce very many Charlie Siffords for a while.
The truth of the matter is that the end of discrimination de jure does little, perhaps even nothing at all, to alter the effects of discrimination de facto. Legally golf is as much a game for black as for white: not only is PGA apartheid long gone, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided a decade or more ago that public courses must be open to all. Realities, however, can sometimes be more complex than legalities.
Charlie Sifford puts it quite bluntly: "Negroes ain't been exposed to golf like the white man. Golf has been the white man's game forever, man, and the black man's just comin' to it now. Way behind. You know, you can't play the game where they won't let you play, and they didn't let us play nowhere for a long time. It ain't easy catchin' up now. Not without money and without real good golf courses to play on and without goin' to college to play golf there—you know any black golfers in college, man?—and without good instruction when we're kids. But they did give us a chance to play golf now and it's open for us if we really want to do it. I ain't expectin' the white man to hug us and kiss us and wrap us in bed. We got the opportunity to play golf—we just got a lot of catch-in' up to do, that's all."
Fatalism is stitched sharply through all of Sifford's words, and perhaps there is even a dark thread of futility in what he says. There is, indeed, a monumental amount of catching up to do before the black men on the tour become household names—even in the households of Harlem or Watts. But the names are there to be heard and there is enough promise, here and there, to suggest that eventually golf fans will hear of at least a few of them.
There is, for example, Lee Elder, 34, who was a rookie in 1968, yet managed to finish 54th among money-winners—with more than $31,000—a very good beginning. Elder's personal brand of cool was etched into the minds of television watchers last August in a heart-stopping sudden-death playoff against Jack Nicklaus in the American Golf Classic. Elder pushed Nicklaus through five frenzied extra holes before losing. Pete Brown, 34, was almost as long a hitter as Nicklaus before he suffered a polio attack a couple of years ago. Still plagued with occasional back spasms, he won $8,400 on the tour in 1968. It was Brown who made golf history in 1964 when he won the Waco Turner Open—which was sort of a satellite PGA tournament—and became the first Negro ever to qualify for the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas. Another tour veteran is Ray Botts, 34, who was once Dwight Eisenhower's regular caddie. Botts has been touring off and on since '63, but last year could win only $3,400. Cliff Brown, 36, won exactly $1,387.03 and finished 217th on the money-winning list.
Then there are the raw rookies and the new returnees—Nathaniel Starks, 28, the Army golf champion in 1965, is new to the tour. Howard (Lefty) Brown, 33, is back for another try after earlier failures. James Walker Jr., 30, a native of Harlem, is on his third tour try after hitting a streak of high scores and low funds in the past. George Johnson, 30, a former Georgia vending machine salesman, is in his first season, and Curtis Sifford, 26, Charlie's North Carolina-born nephew, is a rookie who has had some valuable amateur experience (L.A. Open, Bing Crosby, Phoenix Open) thanks to his uncle's influence.
In a sense Charlie Sifford is an uncle of them all. Since the day he won the L.A. Open in January (shooting a remarkable 35-28—63 in the process) and everyone suddenly remembered him again, it has become the fashionable thing to say that he is to golf what Jackie Robinson was to baseball—human spearhead, iron-willed hero, rugged pioneer who dashed down the white man's barricades to let black men play the game big-league style. For several reasons the metaphor does not work. It is, indeed, absurd. Baseball had a wealth of Negro talent that was being stifled in its lesser leagues. Golf had none. Baseball, like most big-time team sports, eventually moved to let the Negro in because the Negro meant more profits to team owners; the Negroes helped teams become winners, and winners draw crowds and dollars. The Negro golfer was not an attraction—he could not play well enough—so there was no exploitation involved when the doors did finally open. There was only a great gap: open doors but nobody to walk through.
Seven years after Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues there were numerous black stars in baseball, thousands of World Series dollars had been paid to Negroes and Jackie Robinson himself had been voted the Most Valuable Player of his league. So had Roy Campanella—twice. By contrast, it is now seven years since the PGA junked its Caucasian clause and there are just the 10 Negroes on the tour, with only Sifford having won a top-class tournament. The reason is cruel but basic. The Negro golfer does not have access to the courses, the teaching, the money or the time to hone a golf game to the levels required by the tour today. Few white men can. Which is why Sifford is all the more remarkable.
Charlie Sifford was not the first Negro ever to play in a PGA event. In the late '40s a California pro named Bill Spiller tied Ben Hogan for one round in the L.A. Open, and a sweet-swinging golfer named Ted Rhodes scored consistently well in a smattering of tournaments. There were other blacks who tried, half a dozen or so, but all dropped out as they became too old or too tied down at home or too dispirited by the problems they faced. Spiller, now 51 and a golf teacher at a Long Beach, Calif. driving range, recalls that "no one wanted to help us then. We sued the PGA in 1948 to try and break in. Nothing ever came of it. I think most of the white pros—even then—were sympathetic toward us and would have liked to see us in. But, you know, sociologically, they were trying to make it with the Big Bosses too, with the country club set, and they didn't want to rock the boat."
By personality, motivation and commitment, Charlie Sifford is no boat-rocker either. He is blessed with that single-mindedness so essential to good golfers, and nothing but the game seems to penetrate very far into his life-style or his thoughts. "I'm here as a golfer, man," says Charlie. "I ain't no politician and I don't go along with that militant stuff either." An old friend of Charlie's, Maggie Hathaway, a golf columnist for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a Negro newspaper, says with an affectionate chuckle: "Charlie might do a black power salute someday, but he'd make sure he's got his $20,000 check in his pocket first. He's never been what you'd call overly involved with the cause. Of course, the truth of it is that a Charlie Sifford on a picket line wouldn't really mean much at all. But when he shoots a 63, that's his contribution, and no amount of militancy is going to be worth any more than that."
None of the black men on the tour is constructed in the angry mold of a Rap Brown or Eldridge Cleaver. "You just can't play golf and be all involved in a militant movement," says Lee Elder. "None of us out here go along with that stuff. We're here to golf, not to change the world." Old pro Spiller says, "Sometimes we all get pretty impatient about the easygoing attitudes of black golfers. I mean, some Negroes are really quite critical of them for not speaking out more, for not going to the barricades to beat down the white man's country club exclusivity. But maybe the passive approach is best at that. Charlie Sifford never did anything but play golf and play golf and play golf. He was a brave man, old Charlie was. He went through some kind of hell, that man did."
People fall easily into the habit of referring to Charlie Sifford as "Old Charlie" or "Old Folks," as if he were some kind of wrinkled-up codger, hobbled and bent by the facts of his life. In fact he is burly, thick-chested, heavy-shouldered, and he lunges down the fairway with the powerful stride of a longshoreman. But age and the unrelenting pressures have made their erosions. There is an irrevocable weariness in his eyes and he has developed a tendency to recuperate slowly and painfully from illness. A siege of the flu that started during the L.A. Open kept him debilitated for weeks. Sifford's desire to "call back 10 years" is more understandable in him than in other middle-aged men, for he has been fighting the handicaps of age from the very birth of his career. Charlie was already 24 years old in 1947 when he earned his first wages as a golf professional. That year Arnold Palmer was a senior in high school, Jack Nicklaus was 7 years old and Billy Eckstine, Mr. B., was sending the cherry Coke crowd with a baritone rumble that sold millions of records of Bewildered, Fool That I Am and Caravan. Sifford, fresh out of the Army and not at all keen on returning to his prewar job as a shipping clerk at the National Biscuit Co. in Philadelphia, was delighted to be employed by Eckstine as a sort of jack-of-all-jobs. He was the chauffeur, semi-valet, an all-round crony for all hours and—most important—Eckstine's personal golf coach. Charlie's untutored caddie's swing, first learned as a 10-year-old in Charlotte, N.C., was adequate to the situation and he was paid $150 a week by Eckstine—fine money in the late '40s. Charlie frequently played golf with such high-rolling side bettors as Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson in those days. Even though close friends blink in astonishment at the claim, Charlie insists he did not enhance his living through betting. "No man can learn golf by gamblin'," says Charlie, dismissing the possibility forever.
There was in the '50s a form of second-class citizenship granted to a few Negro golfers by the PGA, a kind of one-at-a-time application system whereby black men (and other non-PGA players) could enter a few tournaments here and there. By soliciting the approval of certain local tournament committees, such golfers as Joe Louis, and Rhodes, Spiller and Sifford were allowed to participate in a handful of events that were cosponsored by the PGA. "There was never more than five or six a year I could play in," recalls Sifford. "Not till 1959. Then the PGA let me be in most of the tournaments they had. They had to let me in. It was against the laws of the United States of America to deprive a man of his living." In 1959 the PGA finally granted Sifford an "approved player" rating, something he had been trying to get for several years. It was not a full-fledged membership by any means. "Approved player" was a special category that had long been reserved for touring foreigners, such as Peter Thomson and Bobby Locke.
Before he was given the seal of PGA approval Sifford was a successful performer on the venerable United Golfers' Association tour, the predominantly Negro circuit that has been in operation since 1926. It was a nickel-dime thing, but it was the only dependable source of golf competition for Negroes in those days. Sifford won the UGA National Championship six times, the prize money never exceeding $800. All the while, he kept turning up, stubbornly and silently, at any PGA tournament that he was allowed to enter. It was a demeaning scene at times. Occasionally he had to change his shoes in the car, eat lunch with the caddies or stay in a motel miles away from the course. Unlike Jackie Robinson and other Negroes who integrated team sports, Charlie Sifford seldom had companions along. He could not afford to have his family travel with him and there was no one to arrange his accommodations, dish out his expense checks, pay him his salary or cushion the blows of the gallery ("Nice shot, black boy"). He is still reluctant to recall those travels. "Charlie hates talkin' about it, even to people in his family," says Curtis.
Once, in June of 1963, soon after Martin Luther King's march had aroused the fury of Birmingham, Charlie Sifford allowed a rare public insight into the intensity of his feelings—and his defensiveness. He told Will Grimsley of the Associated Press: "I'm just one black man against 150 whites, and I got pressures nobody ever dreamed of.... If Palmer and Nicklaus had to play with the handicaps I have, they couldn't beat me.... Still, I don't think that [segregation] is the biggest handicap. My biggest problem is that I've got no sponsors or backers. Every time I go into a tournament I'm strictly on my own. I know I'm playing for my bread and butter. The result is I try too hard. I can't be relaxed. I'm always pressing." In his first seven years as a golf pro Sifford earned a scant $17,000 in major tournaments. In the past seven years, since the PGA ban was dropped, his winnings have reached the $200,000 mark and he likes to say now—in the hopeful glow of his late-blooming prosperity—"I don't want to be the best Negro golfer in the world, I want to be the best golfer—period."
It is too late. Too much was used up too long ago for him to win his dream. But what of the other black men on the tour? What have the achievements of Charlie Sifford done for them? Gone is the stultifying pressure of being alone among white men on the tour—the feeling, as Bill Spiller puts it, "of everyone staring at you as if you're made from some kind of weird black plastic." Negro players are fully accepted on the tour and there is no overt sign of bigotry. Partly this is because of an odd, insulated ambience built into the tournament circuit itself. The tour is really a floating civilization that drifts along from town to town and tournament to tournament like an island fully equipped with a cast of tawny, tanned and witty sophisticates, a modern road show version of a party from The Great Gatsby. It is self-ruled, self-motivated and self-contained to a point where many of the everyday prejudices of the real world do not intrude. When Sifford won his first major tournament, the 1967 Hartford Open, a lot of his fellow pros were openly rooting for him. Lee Elder puts it this way: "Believe me or not, there is no difference between blacks and whites on the tour. Corny as it sounds, this is like one big family. The tour is a world by itself, I'd say, and there just isn't any racial tension. Sure, there are guys who don't like me. I can sense that. But in all honesty I'm not positive that it's because I'm colored or because they're jealous that I won so much last year as a rookie. There just isn't any serious prejudice on the tour."
To hear black golfers talk, the lack of overt discrimination extends in some degree beyond the PGA island, too. "Everything's wide open now," says Pete Brown. "Even the South isn't closed up like it used to be. It's a different place entirely from when I started six years ago. I used to put all kinds of pressure on myself, on my game, because I felt so black. I thought of myself constantly as a Negro golfer. I don't anymore. I'm just a golfer now." And George Johnson, new to the tour this year, says, "I suppose I expected to feel all kinds of eyes on me, people glaring at the colored golfer and all. It wasn't that way, man. Nope, the only time I feel uneasy is when I miss a four-foot putt."
So the tour itself seems free of discrimination. Yet the second-class status of the black golfer has not been essentially changed by the feats of Charlie Sifford: country club golf is still the white man's game. Black men have gained no wide access into the circles of affluence and influence that in turn command entrance to the American country club. Thus, because the best courses are out of bounds for most blacks, they wind up trying to sharpen their games on public links—perhaps hitting drives off rubber mats, jockeying for backswing space among roaming herds of players on dinky, dried-up layouts that have no sand or rough, and putting on greens that have the topography and consistency of a dance floor. Under these conditions, black men learn a game that does not resemble the one played on the tour. They must redesign their golf completely in order to have a chance against the more sophisticated tour pro.
"Even the UGA tour is played mostly on those itty-bitty bounce-up courses where nothin' sticks on the greens unless you roll it in," says Johnson. "Most of us—Lee Elder and Nate Starks and Jimmy Walker and Ray Botts—learned our game on courses like that. Who ever played in sand before? Who ever hit to a green where the ball actually stuck? I tell you, if I got one of the white pros out here on one of those little bounce-up courses, I'd whip 'im sound. I'd shoot 65 to his 85."
Besides the bleak terrain on which they play, few black men have the opportunity or the wherewithal to get the kind of expert—and early—instruction they need. "College players get treated like pros from when they're little boys," says Sifford. "They got a game that's almost good enough for the tour before they're 20 years old." "People are always ask-in' me how come I got such a short back-swing," says Johnson. "I know why. I got it from tiptoein' out on a course before dawn—in the moonlight sometimes—then peekin' over my shoulder real quick to see if anyone was watchin' and then whackin' through with the fastest, shortest swing you ever saw so I could hit that ball and get moving before I got caught."
Besides being short on sound instruction, the most seasoned Negro pros come to the tension of the tour with far less significant competition behind them than the average white college player. The UGA tour, helpful though it is at keeping bread in the house while a man is trying to smooth out his swing, does not offer the intensity of competition that brings a golfer's game to perfection. Elder won an astounding total of 18 of the 22 UGA tournaments he played in during 1967. "It's obvious that the play can't be all that rough," he says. "I mean, how could one guy win 18 tournaments if the field was balanced? I'm not saying I didn't play under a lot of pressure on the UGA. More than once I checked into a motel before a tournament knowin' full well that I couldn't check myself out unless I won some money. Now that's pressure I'd say, wouldn't you?"
Of course the pressure for money is faced by everybody on any tour. A man doesn't merely arrive with a sweet swing and a hot putter to play tour golf. He must also have a steady flow of cash for travel, room, board, entry fees—a minimum of $12,000 a year. This often means a sponsor, a sugar daddy somewhere out there with a generous heart and a hot check-writing hand. The PGA once actually required that a man show proof of having at least $5,000 capital in the bank or available before he could get his player's card as a rookie. Given the routine inequities and deprivations in the average black man's life, it is rare indeed to find someone willing to part with $1,000 a month so that a young Negro can develop his golf game on the tour. "Whites can usually find someone to help them out," says Curtis Sifford, though many, including Palmer and Nicklaus, never did. Curtis himself is backed by William Stennis, owner of a chain of fried-chicken restaurants in Los Angeles. "After all," says Curtis, "white golfers can be a good investment—they've been winning money for 50 years. Negroes don't look like anything but a bad risk. Even Charlie hasn't won all that much money until the last couple of years. And no black man can get anywhere near the kind of endorsement money that the whites pick up. You can't blame black people for not rushin' to line up to get their money behind a Negro golfer, can you? Black people's money is too hard to come by for that kind of risk."
Stennis says, "I suppose I already have more than $20,000 invested in Curtis and it will continue to go out at, maybe, $15,000 a year with no guarantee of a return. The risks in backing a black golfer are so extreme that a man can't do it for the possibility of profit alone. He also must want to make a contribution to the Negro cause and feel this kind of contribution is worthwhile."
With a lucky combination of perhaps a little philanthropy and certainly a great deal of polished natural skill, a Negro can indeed become a tip-top golfer. But it takes time, so much time. The average age of the black men on the tour today—not counting Sifford—is a relatively ripe 32 years. As Charlie says, "They gave us the chance and all we got to do now is want to play golf. We got our chance now." True enough. The sad thing is that even though it was Sifford more than any one man who created that opportunity, he can never be given the real reward he deserves—not Charlie Sifford Day in Los Angeles, not speeches at City Hall and gifts in the Black Fox, but those 10 years of his prime that he lost to Jim Crow golf. Perhaps his own weary words say it best. "Nothin' ain't ever as good for a black man as it ought to be."