During this past week, two outstanding professional golfers with the PGA Tour died. Charlie Sifford died at 92 years of age, and Billy Casper died at 83. Sifford won only two regular PGA Tour tournaments; but he was outstanding in that, like Jackie Robinson in baseball, he broke the so-called “color barrier” in professional golf and thereby paved the way for African-American pro golfers such as Lee Elder, Calvin Peete, and Tiger Woods to compete on the PGA Tour. And Billy Casper was outstanding as a player in that he won fifty-one PGA Tour tournaments, with three of them being majors. He is seventh on the list of most PGA Tour wins, being one behind Byron Nelson. Tiger Woods is trying to catch Sam Snead who presently has the most wins.
Charlie Sifford played pro golf for ten years before he got on the PGA Tour. It wasn’t because his game wasn’t good enough to compete with the top pros. Rather, it was because he wasn’t allowed there. The PGA Tour had a “Caucasian-only clause” in its bylaws that prevented Sifford from being a PGA Tour member. In 1961, he legally challenged that rule, and the Tour thereupon abolished it.
That happened right when the African-American Civil Rights Movement was getting cranked up in the U.S. A so-called “sit-in” incident happened in 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, that surprisingly helped the movement. Four young, black, male, college students walked into a Woolworth’s department store that had a food and beverage counter, sat down at the counter, and asked to be served. That just wasn’t done in the South, even though Woolworth’s was the main department store chain in the U.S. in those days. It brought the police, who affirmed management’s decision not to serve them, and it became a national incident that sparked the Civil Rights Movement. Charlie Sifford was born in North Carolina.
I began competing as a pro on the PGA Tour in 1964. In perhaps my second or third year, I remember being paired with Charlie Sifford at the Tour’s Greensboro tournament and someone, or more than one, member of our gallery popping beer cans on Charlie’s backswing. In those days, Sifford was not allowed in the clubhouse at tournaments in the South, including there in North Carolina. Thus, he couldn’t even go in the men’s lockerroom to have a locker and get his shoes shined as all the rest of us players did. I recall feeling embarrassed about being a pro golfer on the PGA Tour because of that.
Although I was born and raised in the cosmopolitan city of Seattle, Washington, where blacks were for the most part treated fairly, in college and throughout my years on the regular PGA Tour I lived in Houston, Texas. So, I knew well about the ill-treatment of blacks in the South. During the 1960s in the South, blacks had to still sit at the back of the bus, they had their own public drinking fountains that were separate from those for whites, and they were not served in most restaurants that catered mostly to whites.
Charlie Sifford was a competitor on the golf course, and it gave him kind of a grumpy reputation, at least with his fellow competitors. But off the golf course, Charlie could really shine and be a lot of fun. I liked Charlie Sifford.
I also liked Billy Casper. See my post on September 17, 2013, entitled “Billy Casper: Part One,” and my post on September 23, 2013, entitled “Billy Casper: Part Two.”
The PGA Tour has lost two fine gentlemen and family-men who are both in the U.S. Golf’s Hall of Fame.