A Conversation With Dr. Charlie Sifford

By Peter Aviles
Updated: June 21, 2007

NEW YORK — Recently, I had the great opportunity to speak with an icon not only in golf, but sports in general. Dr. Charlie Sifford was the first African-American golfer to play on the PGA Tour and the first to win a PGA Tour event.

He first attempted to qualify for a PGA Tour event at the 1952 Phoenix Open, using an invitation obtained by former World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and was subjected to threats and racial abuse there and at other tournaments.

In 1957, he won the Long Beach Open, which was not an official PGA Tour event, but was co-sponsored by the PGA and had some well known white players in the field.

He officially became a member of the Tour in 1961 and went on to win two official money events (1967 Greater Hartford Open; 1969 Los Angeles Open). In 2004, Sifford was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

This Sunday, Dr. Sifford will become the first recipient of the “Charlie Sifford True Original Award” at the 8th Annual Original Tee Golf Classic to be held at the Wild Turkey Golf Club in Hamburg, New Jersey.

I was able to speak with him in advance of his latest honor.

BASN: First of all, I’d like to wish you a belated Happy 85th Birthday (June 2) and congratulations on your upcoming award.

Dr. Sifford, you are an inspirational figure, your life and legacy; being the first being the first on the tour, first in the Hall of Fame and first to receive the honorary law degree from St Andrews; is there any one more gratifying than the other?

CHARLIE SIFFORD: Probably receiving the honorary law degree from St Andrews in Scotland. I also received a Doctor of Law degree from Lincoln University in Missouri.

BASN: Congratulations, I was not aware of the honor from Lincoln University. As you reflect back on your life, is there any one thing, or one person to which you credit your success?

C.S.: Billy Eckstine (the famous singer and entertainer) I traveled extensively with him, taught him how to play golf. I was able to play at private clubs and had access to various golf courses because of my relationship with Billy when we traveled all over the country.

BASN: This is similar to boxers like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson who were avid golfers who also helped along the way?

C.S.: Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis played in the golf tournament but they never helped me, you know. Billy gave me a job working for him. Joe Louis and Ike Williams, all of them use to follow the tour, the United Golf Association where super top guys played in Cleveland, Washington, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.

BASN: Speaking of the many places where you played, was there one course that stands out as your favorite? Is there one place that you always looked forward to playing?

C.S.: Probably, all of the championship golf courses.

BASN: I have a question about your induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame and Gary Player introduced you. What is it about Gary Player?

C.S.: Because he’s a real man. Not because he is South African, he is a real person, an athlete. You know he went through some of the same things I went through when he first came over here!

BASN: What would you like to see happen going forward for African Americans in golf?

C.S.: First of all you need to understand that you have to go to school. You have to go to high school and after high school you have to go to college. You also have to go to places where you can play golf like Florida, Arizona, North Carolina. Go to places where you can learn the game. When an athlete goes to school, he is not introduced to golf; he is introduced to baseball, football and basketball.

BASN: Dr. Sifford, thank you very much for giving me a few moments. It is truly an honor and again congratulations on your latest honor.