CONOVER On Wednesday morning, before the gray skies unloaded at Rock Barn Golf & Spa, a group of yesterday's heroes gathered for bacon, eggs and memories.
They are called great grand champions, senior golf's way of defining the really old guys, and they brought sunshine to the banquet room where their pro-am playing partners gathered.
There was former Masters champion Bob Goalby deftly playing the role of emcee, remembering off the top of his head the career highlights of Gene Littler, Miller Barber, Don January and others.
Goalby kidded Doug Sanders – bedecked in a violent shade of green – and correctly reminded the room that Billy Casper, with 51 PGA Tour wins, remains the most underrated great player in history.
When it came time for Goalby to introduce Charlotte native Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder, he didn't have to talk about numbers.
Their legacy is their names and what they stand for.
Sifford, 86 years old now, refused to accept the PGA's Caucasian-only clause and fought until he shattered it, earning his way onto the PGA Tour, becoming golf's version of Jackie Robinson.
Four years ago, Sifford was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and recently Jack Nicklaus presented him with the Ambassador of Golf award, rewards that continue to remind Sifford and the world of what he did.
Elder, 74, became the first African-American to play in the Masters when he nervously teed it up in 1975, breaking an invisible barrier with grace and dignity.
Their impact reached beyond scorecards and touched society, enriching it and the game through the success of their struggles.
Sifford uses a cane to get around these days but played in the pro-am until rain chased everyone inside at lunch time.
“I've had a good life,” said Sifford, who had open-heart surgery two years ago. “I appreciate everything I've received.”
Sifford has always been gruff on the outside but he fought a wicked fight. Asked if his memories are more good than bad, he answered, “I remember every damn thing.”
He remembers the days, back in the 1970s and ‘80s, when as many as 12 African-American golfers played on the PGA Tour. Pete Brown, Rafe Botts, Jim Dent and others.
Now there's only Tiger Woods; and for all that Tiger and First Tee programs have done to foster a new generation of golfers, there is no visible line of succession for African-American golfers.
“I'm at a disappointment stage,” Elder said, as rain fell outside. “I thought we'd have more players, especially with the success of Tiger. I thought it would entice more young black kids to try to qualify.” Both Sifford and Elder point to money as the primary issue. Golf is expensive, which is why Elder has been proactive, talking with PGA of America officials and others about setting up golf academies that would help foster growth among minorities.
Elder has seen the talent in players like Tim O'Neal, who was on the Nationwide Tour and at the Minority Collegiate Championship, which he attended earlier this year.
But neither Sifford nor Elder has seen the steady stream of African-American players on tour they hoped to see.
If it's inspiration the next generation needs, it could be found in the two men at Rock Barn Wednesday.
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