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Charlie Sifford, first black PGA golfer, dies at 92

Charlie Sifford, a Charlotte native who would become the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour, died Tuesday in Cleveland. He was 92.

Sifford had suffered a minor stroke three weeks ago, his son, Charlie Jr., said.

Born in 1922, Sifford grew up caddying on Charlotte’s whites-only golf courses for 60 cents a day. He often said he would give 50 cents to his mother and keep the remaining 10 cents to buy a cigar, which became his trademark look in later years.

Siffford’s trailblazing career was honored in the later years of his life. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last November.

“On the tour, Charlie was sometimes banned from clubhouse restaurants. Folks threatened him, shouted slurs from the gallery,” President Barack Obama said at the ceremony.

And, Obama noted, hostile fellow pros sometimes kicked Sifford’s ball into the rough.

In 2004, Sifford became the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. “We owe everything to (Sifford) and others like him,” Tiger Woods said then.

Born and raised near South Tryon Street, Sifford became an exceptional golfer, winning two PGA Tour events. But his larger impact came in the social change he helped bring about in professional golf.

Prior to 1961, the Professional Golfers Association had a Caucasians-only clause, prohibiting African-Americans and other minorities from participating in tour events. Sifford, who learned the game as a 10-year-old caddie when he was at Carolina Country Club in Charlotte, won the Negro National Open six times, but he wanted to play on the game’s biggest tour.

He was invited to play in the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open at Sedgefield Country Club and became the first black golfer to play in a PGA-sanctioned event in the South. Sifford has said he remembers seeing armed law enforcement officers at the first hole when he arrived to play his first round in Greensboro in April 1961.

He shot 68 and held the first-round lead that day. He received a death threat that evening but played through the weekend and eventually finished fourth despite dealing with some fans who made it clear they didn’t believe he should be playing.

By November 1961, the PGA did away with its Caucasian-only clause and Sifford became a fixture on the PGA Tour.

On the PGA Tour, Sifford won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. He also won a major: the 1975 PGA Seniors Championship.

Sifford had 17 other victories before he broke the color barrier on the PGA Tour, including the 1957 Long Beach Open, the first time a black player won a PGA-sanctioned event.

Sifford played in 422 PGA tournaments. In addition to his victories, he also finished second twice.

Sifford’s nephew Curtis, who followed his uncle to the tour later, died in December.

Sifford often has been compared to pioneering baseball player Jackie Robinson. But, Obama noted, golf is a solitary sport and Sifford didn’t have teammates to lean on. He had his late wife, Rose, Obama said.

“And he had plenty of guts and grit and that trademark cigar,” Obama said.

Former Observer golf writer Ron Green Jr. and Observer archives contributed.

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