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Persistent Mr. Sifford

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
When the truth is bigger than fiction, you don’t have to make anything up.

Submitted: February 04, 2015

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Submitted: February 04, 2015



I woke up this morning on the couch.  The TV was on the Golf Channel.  Today started like every other day.Except there was some sad news on Morning Drive.  That’s the golf talk show that airs in the a.m. slot.  They were talking about Charlie Sifford.  He died yesterday, at the age of 92.

You’ve heard of Tiger Woods.  You probably never heard of Charlie Sifford. 

Ever heard of Jackie Robinson?  He was the first black guy to play major league baseball.  He was a brave man who put up with a ridiculous amount of bullshit just so he could go to work and do his job.  He didn’t have to put up with that stuff because of anything he did.  It wasn’t his fault.  He didn’t select his melanin level from a dropdown list before he added himself to the shopping cart. 

Charlie Sifford was the Jackie Robinson of golf.

Back then, there was no such thing as black people.  There weren’t African-Americans or people of color.  Whites were taught to refer to people of that race as colored, or Negroes.  We were also taught a relatively long list of other words.  You have to wonder why we needed so many.  I probably should write them down.  History is important, even the bad stuff.  You never want to forget any of it.

Today, you’d be considered a rube if you referred to someone as colored, or a Negro.  But those words are a lot better than some of the things I heard back in the 1960s.  Better than some of the things I saw.

Despite the obvious and serious racial problems we still have, I see people of different races, walking, talking, and laughing together, everywhere I go.  There are lots of beautiful mixed race children.  People are generally friendly to each other.  Black guys don’t usually get the shit kicked out of them for smiling at a white girl. 

Charlie broke down the color barrier in the whitest, most elitist sport on the planet.  He didn’t break all of it down.  Tiger Woods still had to wade through some of it, in high school.  In the 1990s.  In California.  The South doesn’t have a monopoly on racists.  We didn’t invent racism.  It hasn’t gone away yet.  But progress is being made.  As well as some backsliding.  By all of us.  That’s how it works.

Charlie got his start in golf the same way many poor people do, as a caddie.  A caddie does much more than carry clubs.  They are expected to give advice to the player.  Particularly if he is new to the course.  Every golf course is different, every hole on a golf course is different.  It’s a hard game. 

A good caddy will help his golfer shoot a lower score.  That should lead to a bigger tip.  All successful caddies are experts at the game of golf, regardless of how good they are at playing it.  Many are very good at playing it as well.

I never met Charlie but I suspect the same thing happened to both of us.  Golf is an addicting sport, children and adults who fall under its spell are known to spend entire days on the course.  I’ll bet his caddying job quickly went from an economic endeavor to a passion.  That’s a word you can use to describe a serious golfer.  They are passionate about golf.  Another word you could use is nuts.  Charlie Sifford was nuts about golf.

And as a consequence, he became very good at it.

If I had been as good at golf as Charlie, there would have been no obstacles between my young self and a professional career.  I would have gotten a college scholarship, done my four years, and turned pro.  It should have been that easy for Charlie.  The world was a different place then, if you were any color but white.

Charlie made a living by giving golf lessons and playing in various tournaments and leagues that would allow him and others like him to play.  But he tended to dominate those events, there was not enough competition for someone as good as him.  He knew where his competitors were playing.  On the PGA tour.

He had to prove himself in stages.  He won the 1957 Long Beach Open, not an official event, but one that included a number of PGA players.  In 1961, he became the first African-American to become a member of the PGA tour.  In 1967, he won the Greater Hartford Open.  That made him the first of his race to win an official PGA tour event.  He won one other PGA tour event, then later had a successful run on what is now called the Champion’s Tour.

During this time, there were plenty of distractions.  Threats, racial slurs, vandalism.  There are some ugly stories out there.  Charlie always took the high road.  The one consistent theme, throughout his career, was simply that he wanted to play golf.  Just like the rest of us, who never had those problems.  His autobiography is titled “Just Let Me Play”.

His persistence paid off, he is now in the World Golf Hall of Fame.  Last November, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Charles Luther Sifford was born June 2, 1922 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He died February 3, 2015.

It’s too cold to play golf now.  But spring is coming.  The daffodils are already pushing through the ground.  When the leaves start popping out, the cycle of life will begin again.  That first warm day, while I’m pounding the ball around the course, I’ll think about Charlie.  My pals and I will sit around the clubhouse, drink a few beers, and tell lies about how we played.  And we’ll make a toast to the guy, who really wasn’t that different from us, who just wanted to play.

© Copyright 2019 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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