Actor Samuel L. Jackson had it right in his tweet about Charlie Sifford, the trailblazing professional golfer who died this week at age 92 in Cleveland. Jackson described Sifford as “the greatest African American Golfer most of you never heard of.”
I’ve golfed for some 35 years but I was unaware until recently of the pioneering golfer, who got his start as a 12-year-old caddy at his segregated hometown country club in North Carolina, and, in 1960, became the first black golfer admitted to the PGA Tour.
Sifford, a venerated friend and mentor to Tiger Woods, has been called “the Jackie Robinson of golf” for breaking the color barrier on the fairways just as Robinson did in baseball. Sifford endured racial slurs, death threats and reportedly even found feces in the cup on the first hole of a championship event in Phoenix while playing in a foursome with boxing legend Joe Louis.
Coincidentally, I visited the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida, three weeks ago and learned all about Sifford in the fascinating “Breaking Through” portion of a new exhibit called “Honoring the Legacy: A Tribute to African-Americans in Golf.”
The cigar-chomping athlete was the first black golfer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, back in 2004. And, last November, President Obama awarded Sifford a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are the only two other pro golfers so honored.
Sifford, who served in the U.S. Army in Okinawa in World War II, eventually won two PGA Tour events, the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and 1969 Los Angeles Open, as well as the PGA Seniors’ Championship in 1975. In the prime of his golfing career, before he finally was granted a PGA tour card, he enjoyed many other victories, prompting fans – and Sifford himself — to wonder what might have been if he hadn’t encountered all those obstacles because of his skin color.
The World Golf Hall of Fame is a great place to learn more about Sifford and other golf heroes such as one of my favorites, Babe Zaharias. There’s lots of history, trophies and even a Locker Room exhibit where you can peek into the lockers of well-known golfers including Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Outside, visitors may take a couple of shots onto an island green similar to the famous par-3 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass course in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach. (Both my tries landed in the water, joining countless other golf balls). Check worldgolfhalloffame.org
In fact, a prime time to visit St. Augustine, Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra Beach is May 5-10, when The Players Championship brings the world’s greatest golfers to TPC Sawgrass for a fan-friendly week of high-stakes golf ($10 million purse), parties, local food and craft beverages. The event, considered golf’s 5th major, drew 179,000 spectators last year. Several million dollars worth of improvements to enhance the fan experience at the famed Stadium Course include high-end bathrooms with granite counters and touch-less faucets, air-conditioned cooling benches and 80 acres of parking.
Youths under 19 get in free with the purchase of an adult ticket, which range from $20-$65, depending on the day. There’s no limit, either, meaning parents and coaches can bring the whole family or team and only have to pay for their own tickets. Career military — active duty, reserve, military retirees and dependents — also get free admission to the tournament all week (more than 23,000 free tickets were issued last year). Non-retired military veterans receive discounted admission. Check pgatour.com/theplayers
If you can’t get there for The Players Championship event, visitors may tour TPC Sawgrass’ stunning Mediterranean-style clubhouse any time, guided by a platoon of burgundy-coated volunteers such as Charles “Chuck” Berlin, a former metro Detroit businessman who will share anecdotes about pros such as Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and Matt Kuchar. Don’t miss the Saratoga chips with smoked bacon and blue cheese and the mega-sandwiches served on the verandah of the clubhouse restaurant, Nineteen, open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And, of course, you could always reserve a tee-time and play a round, complete with a caddy — if you dare.