- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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."