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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.
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.