Charlie Sifford, who broke golf’s color barrier and helped desegregate the game, died Tuesday at age 92, according to multiple reports.
Sifford, who became the first black golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001, and was just the third golfer, after Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom last November, suffered a bacterial infection and a stroke last week.
He won twice on the PGA Tour, but his scores on the course pale in comparison to what he did for the game. He was the first African American to receive a tour card after the PGA of America desegregated in 1961, and was known as the “Jackie Robinson of golf.”
Tiger Woods has often cited Sifford as an inspiration, referring to him in a congratulatory tweet in November as “the grandpa I never had,” adding, “Your past sacrifices allow me to play golf today. I’m so happy for you Charlie.”
Born in Charlotte, N.C., Sifford became a caddy at 13. As he developed as a player, he competed in tournaments organized by black golfers, who were excluded from the PGA of America. He also coached band leader Billy Eckstine.
Sifford first tried to qualify for a PGA event at the 1952 Phoenix Open, using an invitation he got from former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, an avid golfer. Sifford was the object of threats and racial harassment there and at other tournaments.
In 1957 he won the Long Beach Open, which was not an official PGA event, but was co-sponsored by the PGA. After gaining his tour card, he won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open Invitational and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. Neither win, however, procured him an invitation to the Masters, which did not invite an African American to play until Lee Elder in 1975.
Sifford had two individual wins and six team wins as a senior. He captured the PGA Seniors’ Championship in 1975, five years before it became a Champions Tour major. He also won the 1980 Suntree Classic. He had six wins in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf tournament, teaming with Roberto DeVicenzo to win the legendary Division in 1988, ’89 and ’91, and with Joe Jimenez to win the Demaret Division in 1998-2000.