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William Johnson
March 31, 1969
When Charlie Sifford won himself a big victory in Los Angeles he capped a 20-year struggle to succeed at what had always been a white man's game. Now he is on top, but the time spent climbing is lost forever
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March 31, 1969

Call Back The Years

When Charlie Sifford won himself a big victory in Los Angeles he capped a 20-year struggle to succeed at what had always been a white man's game. Now he is on top, but the time spent climbing is lost forever

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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.

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.

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