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Charles Sifford is an African American former professional golfer who helped to desegregate golf by becoming the first black athlete to compete on the PGA Tour.
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American golfer. Born June 2, 1922, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Considered the Jackie Robinson of golf, Charlie Sifford broke the game's stringent color barrier in 1961 when he became the first black athlete to compete on the PGA tour. His early exposure to golf came on the courses of North Carolina, where Sifford worked as a caddie. He earned 60 cents a day on the course—nearly of all of which went into the pocket of his mom to help keep the household going.
Sifford was a quick learner, however, and by the age of 13 he could shoot par. He realized then that he wanted to make golf his full time job. He also realized that he wanted what, to many, seemed impossible: the chance to play in golf's biggest tournaments against its best players.
As a young golfer, Sifford strung together a living. He turned to coaching, directing the game of big band leader and singer Billy Eckstine. He also played, picking up impressive victories at non-PGA sanctioned events. He dominated the Negro National Open, capturing the title six times in the 1950s.
It helped that he had the encouragement and friendship of some of sports' most prominent black athletes; men such as professional boxers "Sugar" Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, as well as pitcher Don Newcombe. The list also included Jackie Robinson, who'd broken baseball's color barrier in 1947. The same year he broke into the major leagues, Robinson counseled Sifford on the golfer's quest to make it on the PGA tour. "He asked me if I was a quitter," Sifford later recounted. "He said, 'OK, if you're not a quitter, go ahead and take the challenge. If you're a quitter, there's going to be a lot of obstacles you're going to have to go through to be successful in what you're trying to do.' I made up my mind I was going to do it. I just did it. Everything worked out perfect, I think."
Meanwhile, as the Civil Rights era started to take shape, pressure was mounting on the PGA to strip out its offensive "Caucasian Only" membership clause from its bylaws. The first major hurdle was crossed in 1948, when African-American golfers Bill Spider and Teddy Rhodes finished with good enough scores at the Los Angeles Open to earn automatic entry into the PGA-sponsored Richmond Open in California. But paranoid tour officials blocked their entry. They also did some legal side-stepping by getting sponsors to agree to label their tournaments, "Open Invitationals" in order not to invite black players to compete in the events.
Yet, for Sifford some important groundwork had been laid. In 1957, he made history when he not only qualified for the Long Beach Open, but won it, making him the first the African-American golfer to beat white players in a PGA co-sponsored tournament.
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