Golf pioneer Charlie Sifford, former Philly resident, dies

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Charlie Sifford. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Charlie Sifford, 92, a former Philadelphia resident who battled racism in golf in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, became the first African American player to secure playing privileges on the professional tour, and inspired Tiger Woods, died Tuesday night in Cleveland.

Mr. Sifford, the first black player to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, recently had suffered a stroke but details of his death were not immediately available.

Known for the cigar that was his constant companion in every round, Mr. Sifford was an influential figure in forcing pro golf to become all-inclusive. Woods used to refer to him as "the grandpa I never had," and constantly acknowledged how important he was to him.

"It was a tough time for Charlie to go through what he went through, but he paved the way for a lot of us to be where we're at," Woods said at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club. "I know my dad probably wouldn't have picked up the game if it wasn't for what Charlie did."

Regarding Mr. Sifford's passing, Woods said Wednesday on Twitter: "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."

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said Mr. Sifford "was a pioneer in our sport, breaking down barriers and paving the way for everyone able to compete at the highest level to succeed" on the tour.

Born in Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Sifford took up golf at age 12 while he was a caddie. He moved from North Carolina to Philadelphia in 1939 and set up his base at Cobbs Creek Golf Course to work on his game with the goal of becoming a PGA pro. He lived in the city until 1957.

While in Philadelphia, he played in events conducted by the United Golf Association, an organization operated by black golfers, and won the National Negro Open six times.

Mr. Sifford wrote of his struggles to compete on the professional tour with white players in his 1992 autobiography, "Just Let Me Play." He described walking to a green during a 1952 tournament only to find the cup filled with human excrement, and about being heckled with racial slurs at a tournament in Greensboro, N.C., in 1961, the first year he had his tour card.

"I never wanted to quit," Mr. Sifford said in the book. "I was going to prove to the world that a black man can play golf as good as a white man. . . . I was going to play golf one way or the other."

Shortly after his book was published, Mr. Sifford competed in the 1992 Bell Atlantic Classic at Chester Valley Golf Club in Malvern where he said in a brief interview: "I'm not trying to destroy nobody. I wanted to write about the things I went through to be a professional golfer."

One obstacle he fought to overcome was the "Caucasians-Only" clause in the bylaws of the Professional Golfers Association, the umbrella group for touring pros and club pros at the time. Even after the clause was eliminated in 1961 and he received his playing privileges, Mr. Sifford still encountered barriers from sponsors at tournaments, mostly in the South, including death threats.

Mr. Sifford eventually posted two wins on the PGA Tour and captured the 1975 PGA Seniors Championship.

Mr. Sifford was introduced for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004 by Gary Player, who called it "one of the greatest honors of my life.

"He never gave up," Player said Wednesday on the Golf Channel's "Morning Drive" program. "That is the great thing that he leaves behind - not only in his demeanor as far as not being accepted but also on the golf course. He was a fighter."

Mr. Sifford was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2006 by the University of St. Andrews and, last November, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. He joined Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only golfers to receive that honor.

jjuliano@phillynews.com

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