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At Wyndham, Tiger Woods walks path of trailblazing player Charlie Sifford

Charles Sifford plays during the Johnny Mathis Senior golf tournament at MountainGate in March 1986. Sifford died Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. He was 92.
Charles Sifford plays during the Johnny Mathis Senior golf tournament at MountainGate in March 1986. Sifford died Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. He was 92. TNS FILE PHOTO

Tiger Woods was flanked by seven members of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department on Wednesday as he moved about the grounds of Sedgefield Country Club, and he’ll have another security detail with him Thursday when he tees off in the Wyndham Championship.

Another golfer once was given similar treatment at Sedgefield, but for a far different reason.

When Charlie Sifford began play in the 1961 tournament, then called the Greater Greensboro Open, he was the first African-American golfer to compete in a PGA Tour event in the South. For Sifford, a Charlotte native who died in February at 92, it offered a chance to play in his home state but also came with some trepidation.

Should Woods rekindle his game, start making birdies Thursday, shoot a low score and find a spot among the leaders, the buzz at Sedgefield will grow even more. Once the No. 1 player in the world, Woods has not won a PGA Tour title since 2013.

When Sifford opened with a 68 at Sedgefield in 1961, he held the first-round lead. He received several congratulatory messages, including telegrams from Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. He also said he received an anonymous phone call.

“It was something about hanging me from those trees at Sedgefield if I did it again,” Sifford said in a 1985 interview with The News & Observer. “I was afraid before the tournament started. Didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Those were tense times in Greensboro, in the South, coming a year after the lunch-counter sit-ins by four black college students at the Greensboro Woolworth’s. Not everyone agreed with the decision of tournament director Mose Kiser Jr. to invite Sifford to play.

Kiser said George Simkins, then president of the local chapter of the NAACP, suggested Sifford be given a spot in the field. Kiser, in turn, called Dugan Aycock, then president of the Carolinas PGA Section.

Aycock said Sifford had once caddied for him as a teenager and advised Kiser to give Sifford a chance. Kiser gained approval from the Greensboro Jaycees, who once ran the GGO, and history was made at Sedgefield in ’61.

“I had some media say it would ruin the golf tournament. It didn’t,” Kiser said Tuesday. “Someone wrote a letter to me saying, ‘If you love your young children, don’t let them play in the front yard by themselves.’ I took my children over to their grandpa’s house. That took care of that.”

Irwin Smallwood, longtime sports editor of the Greensboro Daily News (now News & Record), said there were discussions at the newspaper as to how to treat Sifford being in the field. The decision: low-key it.

“Jim Crow was still alive and well,” Smallwood said. “But I think the sit-ins had an influence on the Jaycees, who may have said, ‘Before someone tries to make us do it, let’s just do it.’ No one held a gun to their head. They just did it. And it’s always a good feeling when you do what’s right.”

Kiser said for the first time, state troopers and other plainclothes men walked with a golfer during his round at the GGO. There were a few hecklers on the course, he said, but only a few and there were no incidents.

One man did shout something at Sifford at the 16th hole later in the tournament – much to Sifford’s delight.

“Charlie recognized the voice,” Kiser said. “It was the same guy who had made the threatening phone call. Police escorted him from the golf course.”

I wasn’t trying to break down barriers. I was just trying to make a living.

Charlie Sifford, the first African-American to play on the PGA tour, in 1985 interview

Sifford tied for fourth in ’61 and played in the next seven GGO’s and nine in all. He would win the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open.

Sifford was named to the World Golf Hall of Fame and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. He often has been praised by Woods, who said without Sifford’s toughness and determination the “Caucasian-Only” clause in the tour bylaws might not have been stricken in 1961, months after Sifford’s appearance in Greensboro.

“But he broke it down,” Woods said.

Sifford was honored in a ceremony this week at Sedgefield, where a plaque was hung on the tournament wall of fame. Members of his family attended and a nephew, Robert Sifford, said his uncle was a humble man who loved golf.

Not that things were a lot easier for Sifford after the ’61 GGO. He said he was turned away at tour events in Houston and then San Antonio, where he said, “They didn’t even let me in the gate.”

“I wasn’t trying to break down barriers,” Sifford said in the N&O interview. “I was just trying to make a living. I was trying to be the best professional golfer in the world. Being black never crossed my mind.”

Woods rolled up to the front door at Sedgefield on Tuesday and was welcomed warmly, as if he was still the best professional golfer in the world. After the Wyndham, he may not be able to play in the next four PGA Tour tournaments that make up the FedEx Cup playoffs, but it will be because he didn’t qualify.

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip

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