Sifford belongs in Hall of Fame

Updated: April 28, 2004, 3:14 PM ET
By Ron Sirak | Golf World

There will be those who will argue that Charlie Sifford got into the World Golf Hall of Fame not on merit but as a symbol, that his two PGA Tour victories and one PGA Seniors Championship did not warrant the honor. And they would be right, but not for the reasons they think.

Charlie Sifford
Charlie Sifford won twice during his revolutionary PGA Tour career.

Yes, Mr. Sifford is a symbol. He is a symbol of courage and determination as well as a symbolic reminder of a time in America's all-too-recent past we should remember with sadness and shame. Mr. Sifford is a reminder that many of the things we tend to take for granted - such as the right to be served in a restaurant or attend a state university -- were not inalienable rights bestowed from above, as our Founding Fathers said, but rather hard-fought victories earned by those held somewhere down below.

Mr. Sifford did much more than win two PGA Tour events. He was part of a movement that changed America. While it would perhaps be too much of a stretch to say that without Mr. Sifford we would not have Tiger Woods today, it would not be an exaggeration to say that without Mr. Sifford -- and the others who fought against the PGA's "Caucasian Only" clause -- the arrival of an enormously talented player of color in professional golf would have been further delayed. Certainly, there were many in 1961, when Mr. Sifford became the first black to play fulltime on the PGA Tour, who were as determined to block the integration of the tour as Mr. Sifford was to overturn that injustice.

Was Charlie Sifford a revolutionary? Perhaps not. But he was part of a revolutionary movement. Think about this: Blacks were not allowed on the PGA Tour until 1961. Arnold Palmer had already won two Masters by then. And the first black did not play in the Masters -- Lee Elder -- until 1975, the year Tiger Woods was born. Our past is not as distant as we sometimes try to pretend it is. That Mr. Sifford, at the age of 81, has been granted access to the Hall of Fame under the Lifetime Achievement category is -- in the words President Lincoln used at Gettysburg -- "fitting and proper." Mr. Sifford's achievement did more than benefit golf. It benefited America.

Mr. Sifford was a very good though not great golfer. And he was a significant though not singular pioneer. Mr. Sifford was part of the post World War II civil rights movement that had Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus and James Meredith risking his life to get into the University of Mississippi. But Mr. Sifford was also part of a movement in which countless unnamed heroes were beaten and many killed because they dared stand up for rights we tend today to think were always there for all Americans. His induction into the Hall of Fame in November is an honor not just for Mr. Sifford but for all those of forgotten name who fought for equality.

In the world of sports there was the track star Jesse Owens, the boxer Joe Louis -- whose son Joe Louis Barrow heads the First Tee program -- and Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in major league baseball. In golf there were early pioneers such as Bill Spiller. But while the inclusion of Mr. Sifford into the Hall of Fame is a fitting symbolic recognition not just of his ordeal as a pioneer but also a recognition of those who fought the good fight with him, it is also a sad reminder of a current condition that is just as shameful as the Caucasian Only clause of more than 40 years ago.

Grab a PGA Tour media guide from the mid 1970s - around the time Tiger Woods was born - and search the pages for black faces. You will find Rafe Botts, Pete Brown, Jim Dent, Calvin Peete, Curtis Sifford, Nathaniel Starks, Bobby Stroble, Jim Thorpe and Charlie Sifford. Now pick up this year's tour media guide and search for a native-born American of African descent. There is one - Tiger Woods. And that is one more black face than you will find on the LPGA

Certainly, this is not the fault of the tours. In fact, it was at the initiative of the PGA Tour that the First Tee - which tries to bring children from non-golf backgrounds into the game - was created. And the LPGA is one of the most integrated leagues in any sport, largely on the strength of foreign players. But the lack of American-born minorities in professional golf does say something about the way the game has evolved in this country.

Caddie programs - the traditional way in which kids of modest means were exposed to the game - have been replaced at many golf clubs by revenue-generating carts. And public golf is so overcrowded at the courses that are affordable -- and let's not kid ourselves into thinking that a $200 green fee course is public golf -- that players are being driven away from the game by six-hour rounds. More and more, the PGA Tour has become the workplace of players who have gone through the finishing school of country club golf.

The country club was not where Mr. Sifford learned the game. And it was also not where Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen learned the game -- except in this regard: They all were exposed to the game by being caddies. If the talent pool for golf has shrunk -- and that appears to be the case -- it is not just for people of color but for people of modest means.

When Charlie Sifford is inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Nov. 15 in St. Augustine, Fla., it will be a significant day in the history of golf. The game will have its first black member of the Hall of Fame. And it will be a time to remember all those pioneers who walked with him. But it will also be a time to remember how much more there is to do. It will be a time to celebrate the one and only black member of the Hall of Fame, and a time to remember that there is still one and only one black member of the PGA Tour.

Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine

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Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.