What Jackie Robinson was to baseball, Charlie Sifford was to golf.
Sifford, who died Feb. 3 at the age of 92, broke golf’s color line when he became a member of the Professional Golf Association’s tour in 1961.
It took Sifford nine years to break through the barrier. He first tried to play in a PGA tour event in 1952, when he used an invitation issued to boxing champion Joe Louis to play in the Phoenix Open. When he went to get his ball out of the cup at the first hole of the tournament, he found human feces in it.
He began golfing as a boy in Charlotte, North Carolina. He worked as a caddie at a local golf course earning 60 cents a round. By the time he was 13 he could shoot par.
He became the personal golf coach for band leader Billy Eckstine and joined the all-black United Golfers Association, winning five straight national championships.
During his years on the PGA tour he won two events, the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open in 1969.
Now known as the Northern Trust Open, the L.A. Open offers an exemption each year to a local up-and-coming minority player that is known as the Charlie Sifford Exemption.
After leaving the regular PGA tour, Sifford won the PGA’s Senior Championship in 2005. He was admitted to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004 and chose South African native Gary Player to present him for induction.
At his induction ceremony, he told of first meeting Arnold Palmer at the 1955 Canadian Open. Sifford shot an opening round 63 to lead Palmer by one stroke after the first round.
Palmer looked at the scoreboard and, not knowing Sifford was standing behind him, said: “Charlie Sifford? How the hell did he shoot 63?”
“The same damn way you shot 64,” Sifford responded.
Last November, President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sifford in ceremonies at the White House.