Barrier-breaking Sifford dies at 92

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Charlie Sifford, who broke golf's color barrier and helped desegregate the game, died Tuesday at age 92.

Sifford – who became the first black golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001, and was just the third golfer, after Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom last November – suffered a bacterial infection and a stroke last week. 

"Charlie was the first African-American to earn a PGA tour card – often facing indignity and injustice even as he faced the competition," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "Though his best golf was already behind him, he proved that he belonged, winning twice on tour and blazing a trail for future generations of athletes in America."

His scores on the course pale in comparison to what he did for the game. Sifford received a tour card after the PGA of America desegregated in 1961, and was known as the "Jackie Robinson of golf."

''His love of golf, despite many barriers in his path, strengthened him as he became a beacon for diversity in our game,'' PGA of America President Derek Sprague said. ''By his courage, Dr. Sifford inspired others to follow their dreams. Golf was fortunate to have had this exceptional American in our midst.''


Photos: Charlie Sifford through the years


Tiger Woods has often cited Sifford as an inspiration, referring to him in a congratulatory tweet in November as "the grandpa I never had," adding, "Your past sacrifices allow me to play golf today. I'm so happy for you Charlie."

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sifford began caddieing at 13. As he developed as a player, he competed in tournaments organized by black golfers, who were excluded from the PGA of America. He also coached band leader Billy Eckstine.

Sifford first tried to qualify for a PGA event at the 1952 Phoenix Open, using an invitation he got from former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, an avid golfer. Sifford was the object of threats and racial harassment there and at other tournaments.

In 1957 he won the Long Beach Open, which was not an official PGA event, but was co-sponsored by the PGA. After gaining his tour card, he won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open Invitational and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. Neither win, however, procured him an invitation to the Masters, which did not invite an African American to play until Lee Elder in 1975.

Sifford's 1992 autobiography, "Just Let Me Play," written with James Gullo, revealed some of the prejudice and abuse Sifford was subjected to, on and off the course, including not being allowed to eat in many clubhouse dining rooms, not being allowed to stay in many hotels and not being allowed to play in many tournaments. And there were death threats, but despite everything, Sifford refused to back down.

Another black golfer, Walter Morgan, told Rhonda Glenn of the USGA that he tried to read Sifford's book, but became too emotional to finish it. “The stuff that he had to go through ... I couldn’t have gone through that, but thank God he did,” Morgan told Glenn. “His book is right, ‘Just Let Me Play.’ And he took it, that kind of stuff. I just don’t think I could have taken that. I really don’t.”

As a senior player, Sifford had two individual wins and six team wins. He captured the PGA Seniors' Championship in 1975, five years before it became a Champions Tour major. He also won the 1980 Suntree Classic. He had six wins in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf tournament, teaming with Roberto DeVicenzo to win the Legendary Division in 1988, '89 and '91, and with Joe Jimenez to win the Demaret Division in 1998-2000.

“The world of golf has lost one of its most inspirational and significant figures," said Jack Peter, COO of the World Golf Hall of Fame. "In the very sense of the word, Charlie Sifford was a trailblazer for not only the game of golf, but for mankind. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Sifford family. While our hearts are heavy with sadness as we grieve Charlie’s passing, we also celebrate an incredible life.”