When Charlie Sifford was a teenage caddy breaking par on white-only golf courses in the 1930’s, he couldn’t have known he was developing the skill to break barriers.
Charlie was 18 in 1947 when he met Hall of Fame baseball player Jackie Robinson, who warned him that overcoming the racial barriers in sports would feel near impossible, but that if he wanted to succeed, he couldn’t let that stop him.
And he didn’t. In 1948, Charlie began golfing professionally in all-black tournaments, the only ones he was allowed to enter. And he was so dominant that he won their top tournament, the Negro National Open, six times in the 1950s. In 1957, he was finally allowed to play in the Long Beach Open, which he won by a stroke to become the first black golfer to beat white players in a PGA-sponsored event.
The PGA had long held that black golfers couldn’t compete on the same level as white golfers, so there was no reason to allow them on the tour. Charlie shattered that logic, and with a little legal pressure from the state of California, the PGA dropped their “caucasian-only” clause. Charlie became the first black man with full PGA membership in 1961.
He played in 422 PGA tournaments, coming in second twice, getting five third-place finishes, and winning almost $350,000.
In 2004, Charlie Sifford was the first black man inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and in 2014, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his trailblazing that allowed not only black golfers to compete in the PGA, but all minorities who’d previously been excluded.
Charlie once said, “Hell, I knew I’d never get rich and famous. All the discrimination, the not being able to play where I deserved and wanted to play — in the end I didn’t give a damn. [...] in the end I won; I got a lot of black people playing golf. That’s good enough. If I had to do it over again, exactly the same way, I would.”