Long before Tiger Woods, there was Charlie Sifford.
A far less-heralded trailblazer, Sifford became the first black man to hold a PGA Tour card in 1961, doing for the highly-segregated world of professional golf what Jackie Robinson had done for baseball a decade-and-a-half earlier. He died Tuesday night in Cleveland at the age of 92, having finally earned the recognition toward the end of his life that had eluded him during his prime playing days. Sifford became the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004, and 10 years later he joined Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only professional golfers to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Tributes to Sifford poured in on Wednesday from leaders in sports, entertainment, and politics. President Obama lauded him "for altering the course of the sport and the country he loved." Woods, who said his father might not have picked up the game had it not been for Sifford, called his death "a terrible loss for golf and me personally."
Terrible loss for golf and me personally. My grandfather is gone and we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man. I'll miss u Charlie.— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) February 4, 2015
Born in Charlotte in 1922, Sifford earned 60 cents a day as a caddie, giving all but a dime to his mother, according to a profile written by the USGA in 2012. By the age of 13, he could shoot par, but he spent most of his 20s and 30s relegated to a blacks-only professional tour. Until Sifford forced his way onto the tour with the help of California attorney general Stanley Mosk, the PGA Tour had an even stricter prohibition against blacks than the unwritten rule that prevailed in baseball until 1947: The bylaws had a "Caucasian only" membership clause that was removed in 1961.
Sifford detailed the prejudice he faced throughout his career in a 1992 memoir, Just Let Me Play. Publishers Weekly called it "an unrelievedly depressing autobiography" and said the author came off as "bitter, ornery, angry." It seems he had reason to be. He wrote of receiving death threats and hearing racial slurs as he made his way through the course during events, and he recalled that when he reached the first green at the 1952 Phoenix Open, he found human feces in the cup. He drew inspiration from Jackie Robinson, who warned him of the obstacles he'd face when the two met shortly after Robinson had broken baseball's color barrier.
As Obama noted in awarding Sifford the Presidential Medal Freedom last fall, by the time he was fully welcomed onto the PGA Tour, "most of his best golf was behind him." Yet he won two events during the 1960s and another two on the senior circuits. Sifford did not achieve his goal of becoming the first African-American to play in the Masters—that distinction went to another golf pioneer, Lee Elder, in 1975. But in its obituary, ESPN.com wrote that his "pain was eased" when Woods made history by winning the storied tournament in 1997, the first of his four victories there.
Despite the popularity and broadened appeal that Woods brought to the game during his decade or so of domination, golf's racial gap has persisted. The PGA Tour, like most of the nation's country clubs, remains a predominantly white place. And with Woods struggling to stay on the course in recent years, the most prominent black golfer in the country is not a professional athlete, but the president of the United States. Yet given the glacial pace of change in the sport, it is perhaps all the more reason to honor Sifford, without whom it would have been slower still.
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