Charlie Sifford’s legacy is secure – nowhere stronger than in the heart of a 10-year-old golfer in Alabama.
Sifford, a Charlotte native who died Feb. 3 at the age of 92, was remembered at his funeral Friday as a husband, father, grandfather and uncle to his family, as well as a trailblazer who was the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour.
Stories were told at the service at Charlotte’s Moore’s Sanctuary A.M.E. Zion Church about Sifford’s impact on the sport. Politicians such as former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt and former U.S. Congressman Mel Watt Jr. paid tribute, as did those Sifford once mentored, including Charlotte’s James Black and former caddy Caesar “Bear” Wallace.
But Sifford’s true impact was felt most when a poem mailed to his family by young Quincy Ahlias Leonard, one of the top youth golfers in Alabama and an African-American, was read aloud:
Ode to a great
A Great was born in 1922.
He paved the way for golfers like me and you.
Charlie Sifford broke barriers all his life,
Despite the racial threats and strife.
He won the National Negro Open six times
And the PGA Seniors Championship in 1975.
The first African-American golfer in the PGA,
Because of him I can be the golfer that I am today.
A legend died at 92.
Oh, what a dream to walk his path in my shoes.
Sifford, who was born in Charlotte in 1922, learned how to play golf while caddying at white golf courses around town. Before earning his PGA Tour card at age 39 in 1961, he had won the National Negro Open six times (as Quincy’s poem points out). He would win twice on tour, the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open, as well as the 1975 PGA Seniors Championship.
Known as “golf’s Jackie Robinson,” Sifford would later be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2006, he received an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 2011, the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course at Revolution Park in Charlotte was named in his honor.
In November 2014, less than three months before he died, Sifford received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Charlie Sifford had a vision – a vision that he wanted to be a PGA Tour player with a PGA Tour card,” said Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor who was also the first black student to enroll at Clemson in 1963. “But he also prepared himself to golf well, not only psychologically and mentally, but to handle the stress that comes with being a pioneer. Then he had the courage to go out there and execute and succeed.”
Among those at the services were former black golfers Calvin Peete and Jim Dent, who followed Sifford onto the tour later. Life wasn’t easy for the black players in the ’60s. They often weren’t allowed to practice or use the locker room facilities at the country clubs where the tournaments were played and had to listen to threats and taunts from fans.
“Charlie showed us the way,” Peete said.
Said James Black, who played briefly on the tour in the 1960s: “What Charlie taught us was those core values about a way of life. He believed in values. He was our golf spiritual leader. He taught us.”
Sifford’s lessons are now being passed down to the likes of young black golfers like Quincy Ahlias Leonard. In a letter to Sifford’s family that he sent along with his poem, Quincy wrote:
“… Dr. Charlie Sifford inspired me to be tough even when it is hard.”