Sifford's legacy honored by a nation

At the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open, Charlie Sifford's appearance marked the first time a black man had ever been in the field of a PGA Tour event in the South. Playing at Sedgefield Country Club, he held the lead after a first-round 68.

Sifford had made his name in the predominantly black United Golf Association, but now he was the leading figure in the effort spurred by an emerging civil rights movement to end the PGA's Caucasians-only policy, which had stood formally since 1934.

In 1960, the 38-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina, native had played 20 tournaments on the PGA Tour with an Approved Tournament Player status, the first black golfer to be granted that rank.

Jim Crow laws forbade him from getting a room at most of the city's hotels, so he stayed first in a dorm room at the all-black North Carolina A&T and then at the home of a local black family.

On the night before the second round, Sifford received a threatening phone call.

"You'd better not bring your black ass out to no golf course tomorrow if you know what's good for you, n-----," said the white man with the Southern accent. "We don't allow no n-----s on our golf course."

Sifford did arrive for his 10:15 a.m. tee time the next day, despite fears that his life was in danger. For the first 14 holes, he was taunted by a pack of 12 white men who were shouting racial obscenities.

"Go back to the cotton fields," they said. "Hey, boy, carry my bag."

Eventually, police would haul the men off the golf course.

Sifford, who shot a 1-over 72 in that tumultuous second round, would ultimately finish in a tie for fourth in the tournament.

"I knew that if I blew up, it would all be over," Sifford recalled years later in his autobiography, "Just Let Me Play." "I couldn't solve anything by violence. It would just ensure that all blacks, beginning with me, would be permanently barred from the tour.

"I just had to learn to handle it, because for all I knew, this would happen wherever I went to play golf in the South. They rattled me, for sure, but I survived."

For that perseverance, courage and restraint against seemingly insurmountable odds to desegregate the PGA Tour, Sifford will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in a reception Nov. 24 at the White House.

At 92, Sifford, who became the first black golfer to earn a full PGA Tour card when the Caucasian-only clause was lifted in November 1961, has been honored widely within the golf world.

In 2004, the two-time tour winner was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He is the recipient of an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf. In 2007, Sifford received the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America's highest honor, the Old Tom Morris Award.

Yet the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which only two other golfers have ever received -- Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer -- is recognition of Sifford's seminal contribution to broader American society during a time when politics, culture and sport were all converging on the nation's sordid racist past.

There was Sifford, a cigar-chomping family man with an indefatigable love for golf and a desire to earn a living through the game, in the middle of the struggle for freedom and equal rights for African-Americans. The golf course was his battleground, not the streets of Selma, Memphis or Birmingham.

Sifford did not set out to be a pioneer. For him, this award has to be as much a reminder of his disappointments as it is of his achievements. No award can make up for the entrenched racism in the game that kept him off the PGA Tour during his prime playing years and out of many of the top events, including the Masters. He is not without bitterness.

Perhaps on a personal level, this honor may provide a satisfying coda for Sifford on his long life. Surely he couldn't have fathomed 50 years ago that he would live to see a black president. In many ways, Barack Obama is part of Sifford's legacy, as are the thousands of black athletes who have benefited from his courageous service.

Long after Obama puts the medal around his neck, Sifford will continue to live in each of us who ever dared to claim a space where somebody said we didn't belong simply because of the color of our skin.

There would not be a Tiger Woods without Sifford. And without Tiger, the game would not be as popular as it is around the world.

Yet, regardless of our race, nationality or proximity to the story of the integration of golf, we all owe Sifford a profound debt of gratitude for contributing his humble portion to making the game more inclusive and diverse.

We are all his children and should be thankful that he didn't respond to that Greensboro mob with anger and violence. By continuing to play, Sifford helped to ensure a brighter future for the game and the United States.