There will be those who will argue that Charlie Sifford got into the
World Golf Hall of Fame not on merit but as a symbol, that his two PGA
Tour victories and one PGA Seniors Championship did not warrant the
honor. And they would be right, but not for the reasons they think.
Yes, Mr. Sifford is a symbol. He is a symbol of courage and
determination as well as a symbolic reminder of a time in America's
all-too-recent past we should remember with sadness and shame. Mr.
Sifford is a reminder that many of the things we tend to take for
granted - such as the right to be served in a restaurant or attend a
state university -- were not inalienable rights bestowed from above, as
our Founding Fathers said, but rather hard-fought victories earned by
those held somewhere down below.
Mr. Sifford did much more than win two PGA Tour events. He was part of a
movement that changed America. While it would perhaps be too much of a
stretch to say that without Mr. Sifford we would not have Tiger Woods
today, it would not be an exaggeration to say that without Mr. Sifford --
and the others who fought against the PGA's "Caucasian Only" clause --
the arrival of an enormously talented player of color in professional
golf would have been further delayed. Certainly, there were many in
1961, when Mr. Sifford became the first black to play fulltime on the
PGA Tour, who were as determined to block the integration of the tour as
Mr. Sifford was to overturn that injustice.
Was Charlie Sifford a revolutionary? Perhaps not. But he was part of a
revolutionary movement. Think about this: Blacks were not allowed on the
PGA Tour until 1961. Arnold Palmer had already won two Masters by then.
And the first black did not play in the Masters -- Lee Elder -- until
1975, the year Tiger Woods was born. Our past is not as distant as we
sometimes try to pretend it is. That Mr. Sifford, at the age of 81, has
been granted access to the Hall of Fame under the Lifetime Achievement
category is -- in the words President Lincoln used at Gettysburg --
"fitting and proper." Mr. Sifford's achievement did more than benefit
golf. It benefited America.
Mr. Sifford was a very good though not great golfer. And he was a
significant though not singular pioneer. Mr. Sifford was part of the
post World War II civil rights movement that had Rosa Parks refusing to
sit in the back of the bus and James Meredith risking his life to get
into the University of Mississippi. But Mr. Sifford was also part of a
movement in which countless unnamed heroes were beaten and many killed
because they dared stand up for rights we tend today to think were
always there for all Americans. His induction into the Hall of Fame in
November is an honor not just for Mr. Sifford but for all those of
forgotten name who fought for equality.
In the world of sports there was the track star Jesse Owens, the boxer
Joe Louis -- whose son Joe Louis Barrow heads the First Tee program -- and
Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in major league baseball.
In golf there were early pioneers such as Bill Spiller. But while the
inclusion of Mr. Sifford into the Hall of Fame is a fitting symbolic
recognition not just of his ordeal as a pioneer but also a recognition
of those who fought the good fight with him, it is also a sad reminder
of a current condition that is just as shameful as the Caucasian Only
clause of more than 40 years ago.
Grab a PGA Tour media guide from the mid 1970s - around the time Tiger
Woods was born - and search the pages for black faces. You will find
Rafe Botts, Pete Brown, Jim Dent, Calvin Peete, Curtis Sifford,
Nathaniel Starks, Bobby Stroble, Jim Thorpe and Charlie Sifford. Now
pick up this year's tour media guide and search for a native-born
American of African descent. There is one - Tiger Woods. And that is one
more black face than you will find on the LPGA
Certainly, this is not the fault of the tours. In fact, it was at the
initiative of the PGA Tour that the First Tee - which tries to bring
children from non-golf backgrounds into the game - was created. And the
LPGA is one of the most integrated leagues in any sport, largely on the
strength of foreign players. But the lack of American-born minorities in
professional golf does say something about the way the game has evolved
in this country.
Caddie programs - the traditional way in which kids of modest means were
exposed to the game - have been replaced at many golf clubs by
revenue-generating carts. And public golf is so overcrowded at the
courses that are affordable -- and let's not kid ourselves into thinking
that a $200 green fee course is public golf -- that players are being
driven away from the game by six-hour rounds. More and more, the PGA
Tour has become the workplace of players who have gone through the
finishing school of country club golf.
The country club was not where Mr. Sifford learned the game. And it was
also not where Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen
learned the game -- except in this regard: They all were exposed to the
game by being caddies. If the talent pool for golf has shrunk -- and
that appears to be the case -- it is not just for people of color but
for people of modest means.
When Charlie Sifford is inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on
Nov. 15 in St. Augustine, Fla., it will be a significant day in the
history of golf. The game will have its first black member of the Hall
of Fame. And it will be a time to remember all those pioneers who walked
with him. But it will also be a time to remember how much more there is
to do. It will be a time to celebrate the one and only black member of
the Hall of Fame, and a time to remember that there is still one and
only one black member of the PGA Tour.
Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine