UpFront: April 2014

Still a stroke back

The first black man to earn full PGA Tour membership grew up between the world wars in a Charlotte neighborhood flanked by two golf courses. Charles Sifford was destined to break one of golf’s racial barriers, but it wouldn’t be at either of them. A legal battle had to be fought in the 1950s before blacks could tee off at Bonnie Brae Municipal Golf Course, and though he earned 50 cents a round caddying at Carolina Golf Club — where he learned the game — members complained when they saw him play the course. When he was 17, Sifford moved to Philadelphia. Golf was more integrated there.

He vied for $500 first-place prizes on the United Golf Association tour because the rulebook for the PGA Tour, where a winner could earn up to $50,000, restricted membership to Caucasians. He scraped by as the golf instructor to Billy Eckstine, a popular bandleader who palled around with boxer Joe Louis and other black celebrities of the 1940s and ’50s. “Mr. B” paid him about $150 
a week. Through pressure applied by the former world heavyweight champ, Sifford and a group of black golfers were allowed to try to qualify for the 1954 Phoenix Open. Human feces filled the cup on the first green.

The PGA Tour let him join in 1961, 14 years after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers as Major League Baseball’s first black player. His first tournament in the South was in North Carolina. During the second round of the Greater Greensboro Open, a dozen white men trailed him, shouting things like, “Hey, boy, carry my bag.” He finished fourth. That GGO is heralded as a major milestone, but for Sifford it was just another mile marker. Sponsors denied him entry to the next event, in Houston. Same thing at the one after that. He captured his first PGA Tour victory in 1967 and another two years later, but lucrative sponsorships eluded him. Nevertheless, he played the senior tour seriously until 1995.

Sifford has received a measure of the respect he’s due. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004 and received an honorary doctorate of law from University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Five years later, Charlotte unveiled the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course at Revolution Park. It’s a small nine-hole muni, built over the bones of the Bonnie Brae course.

When I set out to write the story that begins on page 60, I envisioned a simple profile of Harold Varner III, a young Gastonia golfer trying to make the PGA Tour, that would be a nice complement to our annual golf package. I had no intention of delving into the long-term effects of discrimination. Then I read Sifford’s memoir. Few would argue that racism today reaches the virulence he describes. Still, if you look at the numbers, something isn’t right, not with blacks’ median adjusted household income 59.2% of whites in 2013 — up only slightly from 55.3% in 1967 — according to Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center.

Despite his breakthrough, Sifford — now 91 and, according to an employee at his namesake course, in poor health living with a relative near Cleveland — was dubious when he wrote his book two decades ago. “I think it would be great if it changed the way blacks are treated by the game, but I have no illusions that it will. Because, as I said, blacks are not welcome by the game of golf.”