More than 50 years after leading the integration of professional golf in America, Charlotte native Charlie Sifford will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on Nov. 24 at the White House.
The Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, and Sifford, 92, will be invited to join 18 other honorees including newscaster Tom Brokaw, actress Meryl Streep, musician Stevie Wonder and Ethel Kennedy.
Born and raised near South Tryon Street, Sifford became an exceptional golfer, winning two PGA Tour events. But his larger impact came in the social change he helped bring about in professional golf.
Prior to 1961, the Professional Golfers Association had a Caucasian-only clause, prohibiting African-Americans and other minorities from participating in tour events. Sifford, who learned the game as a 10-year-old caddie when he was at Carolina Country Club in Charlotte, won the Negro National Open six times, but he wanted to play on the game’s biggest tour.
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He was invited to play in the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open at Sedgefield Country Club and became the first black golfer to play in a PGA-sanctioned event in the South. Sifford has said he remembers seeing armed law enforcement officers at the first hole when he arrived to play his first round in Greensboro in April 1961.
He shot 68 and held the first-round lead that day. He received a death threat that evening but played through the weekend and eventually finished fourth despite dealing with some fans who made it clear they didn’t believe he should be playing.
By November 1961, the PGA did away with its Caucasian-only clause and Sifford became a fixture on the PGA Tour. Sifford won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open, and he would later win the PGA Seniors Championship.
In 2004, he became the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. “We owe everything to (Sifford) and others like him,” Tiger Woods said then.
In 2006, Sifford received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Three years ago, Revolution Golf Course was renamed the Dr. Charles Sifford Golf Course at Revolution Park by the Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department.
“Charlie was a trailblazer, no doubt about that, with the work he did in communities all over the United States in terms of civil rights and integrating golf courses,” said James Black, another African-American from Charlotte who joined Sifford on the PGA tour. “He was a great ambassador for the game. It’s great to see him get this honor.”
In a statement released Monday, Obama said, “From activists who fought for change to artists who explored the furthest reaches of our imagination; from scientists who kept America on the cutting edge to public servants who help write new chapters in our American story, these citizens have made extraordinary contributions to our country and the world.”
During a 2004 interview, Sifford said his persistence in breaking down the color barrier in professional golf stemmed from four personal goals: He wanted to be a professional golfer, he wanted to be a member of the PGA, he wanted to win a tournament and he wanted to play in the Masters.
Sifford, who lives in Cleveland, accomplished three of his goals but never qualified for the Masters. Lee Elder became the first African-American to compete in the Masters in 1975.
“It wasn’t just integrating golf for African-Americans. It was for Cubans, for Puerto Ricans, for everyone else,” Sifford told the Observer in 2004.
Writer Pete McDaniel, author of “Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans In Golf,” said Sifford’s impact was far reaching.
“Charlie was in the right place at the right time, and he persevered,” McDaniel said. “Others who came along after him credit him with being the Jackie Robinson of golf because he was the one who set the table for them.
“He faced so many challenges, and a lot of them were outside the game. That’s what was so inspirational to a lot of players who came after him.”