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At 86, Sifford still making a difference

2/18/2009 - Golf Charles Sifford

The lost years can never be regained.

Charlie Sifford has spent a good part of his days wondering what might have been, how opportunity never really knocked, how things might have been different for a golfer with immense talent but few places to show it.

Now, at 86, he is lending his name to a special exemption being given at the annual Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles, where his last victory came 40 years ago in a playoff over Harold Henning.

Vincent Johnson, who played golf at Oregon State and is now a pro toiling on the Gateway Tour in Arizona, is the recipient of the first exemption and will play in his first PGA Tour event this week in honor of Sifford, who for years was denied access to such a tournament because of a Caucasian-only clause that was not rescinded until 1961.

"It's something that should have been done a long time ago," Sifford said recently when the exemption was created. "This is a wonderful thing. It will give someone a chance."

Sifford's chance came too late. He was nearly 40 by the time he could finally play the PGA Tour and was the first African-American to become a member in 1961. For that, he was often referred to as the Jackie Robinson of golf.

"Jackie Robinson did a beautiful job," Sifford said during an interview several years ago. "He was my friend. When I tried to start playing, I went to Jackie Robinson and asked him about it. He asked me if I was a quitter and I said no. He said, 'If you're not a quitter, take a shot at it. But you'll run into a lot of obstacles.'

"In the job Jackie had, he was in a ballpark. He had a manager. He had someone to protect him. I never had anybody to protect me out here. I was walking in the middle of a golf course. Anything could have happened."

Sifford began his days in golf as a caddie at an all-white club in Charlotte, N.C., where he started smoking cigars at age 13 and learned to play golf on Mondays, when caddies were allowed on the course. He had to sneak on other days, and because of that Sifford said he became a poor putter.

"I was always moving fast to keep from being thrown off," he said. "I never learned to take my time on the greens and develop a good stroke."

His golf career continued as singer Billy Eckstine's personal pro for a decade, and he later dominated a little-known black professional golf circuit on which he won the Negro National Open six times. All the while, he fought the PGA in order to pursue his passion: playing golf at the highest level.

"Without Charlie Sifford, there would have been no one to fight the system for the blacks that followed," said Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first African-American to play in the Masters. "It took a special person to take the things that he took: the tournaments that barred him, the black cats in his bed, the hotels where he couldn't stay, the country-club grills where he couldn't eat. Charlie was tough and hard. That's the reason you still see that hardness."

Sifford's resilience was seen in his sturdy, stocky 5-foot-8 frame. And it helped him throughout his professional career, which began in the 1940s. When he won the 1957 Long Beach Open, he became the first African-American golfer to defeat white professionals in a PGA-sanctioned event.

Although he did not become a PGA member until age 38, he was among the top 60 money winners every year through 1969.

And he was the subject of harassment at many tournaments he tried to enter, especially in the South. He might be barred from using a club's restroom or locker room. He had a difficult time finding a hotel rooms, so he stayed with acquaintances.

"I don't blame anybody," Sifford said. "What could anybody say? That's how it was. Those were the rules."

Sifford became the first African-American to win a regular PGA Tour event at the 1967 Hartford Open, shooting a final-round 64, and he won again in 1969 at the Los Angeles Open, although neither victory earned him an invitation to the Masters.

By the time the Senior PGA Tour -- now known as the Champions Tour -- came around in 1980, Sifford already was 58 years old. He won the Suntree Classic in Melbourne, Fla., that year, his only senior victory.

"I wish I could have started when I was younger," he said. "I thank God for the greatest game in the world. But you cannot start at the age I started. You have to grow up with this game. I didn't do that."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.