Charlie Sifford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, at a White House reception on Monday. The 92-year-old is only the third golfer to receive the illustrious distinction, following Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Sifford is often referred to as the Jackie Robinson of golf, fighting hard to desegregate the color barrier in golf. He finally prevailed in 1961 when he became the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour, after the Caucasian-only clause was struck from PGA of America’s constitution.
Prior to that, Sifford was forced to resort to playing in the National Negro Opens and won six of those titles. He was regularly endured harassment and threats at golf clubs and was excluded from amenities because of his race.
When he joined the PGA Tour, he went on to win twice — the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open. He became the first black golfer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.
Sifford was praised by President Barack Obama as he draped the medal around the brave trailblazer’s neck.
“And because golf can be a solitary sport,” Obama said, “Charlie didn’t have teammates to lean on. But he did have his lovely wife Rose, and he had plenty of guts and grit and that trademark cigar.”
Had someone told Sifford in 1954 that he would be at the White House honored by the first black president of the United States, “I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said.
Asked to share his feelings, Sifford touched the medal draped around his neck and said, “Hard to explain. I love it.”
Brokaw, an award-winning TV and print journalist, put into perspective the plight of the black athlete before the Civil Rights Era.
“I lived and breathed Jackie Robinson, and when I got a little older and appreciated the kind of skills that he had, and then the rejection that he felt, just simply because of the pigment of their skin, it was an outrage,” Brokaw said.
“Mr. Sifford, I remember him very well when he was playing golf. He was a wonderful golfer. And the idea that he couldn’t eat in a restaurant or get into a club is – thank God we’re beyond that.”
Although Sifford acknowledges the game’s progress, he notes that the relatively small percentage of black golfers is a concern.
“It’s a tough game,” he said, “and it’s hard to get into. Golf is a very, very, very tough game. An expensive game, and lot of people don’t mess with it because it’s too tough.”
Congrats to Mr. Sifford and thank you for your brave contributions to the game and civil rights.