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Trail blazer encourages Revolution

Charlie Sifford raised his cane in his right hand and pointed to a creek running alongside a modest Charlotte golf course Tuesday.

"If I wanted to make a living, I had to get some balls out of there," he said. When a youthful Sifford found a good one, he could sometimes sell it for a quarter.

This was during the Depression, and 25 cents was decent money. When Sifford caddied 18 holes back then at various Charlotte golf courses, he only got paid 60 cents.

"I'd give 50 cents to my mother, and then I'd go get me a cigar," Sifford said. He was 13 at the time.

Sifford is 88 now.

The golf course with the creek got renamed for him Tuesday.

It was a fitting gesture. The nine-hole public course that once didn't allow blacks to play has undergone a $10million refurbishment and now is named for the pioneering African-American golfer from Charlotte. It is officially called the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course at Revolution Park, which is quite a mouthful and quite an honor.

"I want you to know that the greens fees will be raised Monday morning," Sifford joked in front of the crowd of several hundred who came out to witness the renaming ceremony on a sunny, breezy afternoon that resonated with history.

Born in Charlotte, Sifford learned to play golf in the city before leaving the South to pursue the game at the highest level. He became the first African-American member of the PGA Tour in the early 1960s and was one of the tour's better players for the next decade, winning two Tour events. In many ways, Sifford was golf's Jackie Robinson.

For those efforts, Sifford has been inducted into numerous halls of fame and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by a Scottish university. That's why many addressed the man in the red golf shirt with an unlit cigar in the breast pocket as "Dr. Sifford" on Tuesday.

Sifford's personal history and the story of Revolution's golf course now are intertwined, but for a long time those two threads were separated. Sifford left Charlotte long before the city's first public golf course was integrated in a landmark civil rights case in the 1950s. The Dec. 5, 1956, Charlotte Observer proclaimed in a large front-page headline: "Segregation is Ended On City's Golf Course."

Interestingly, the female judge who decided in favor of the African-Americans who wanted to play the course (then known as Bonnie Brae) didn't really want to do so. But Judge Susie Marshall Sharp felt she was forced into a corner by the law.

As brought out in a perceptive 2008 biography by Anna R. Hayes called "Without Precedent," Sharp was a deeply prejudiced woman but did not let that affect her ruling. As Hayes wrote, "Understanding how strong Judge Sharp's racism was allows one to admire her all the more for her unwavering adherence to the rule of law, even when it went against her grain."

Sharp's ruling paved the way for the first rounds to be officially played by blacks at the course, in 1957. Some African-Americans like future PGA pro James Black of Charlotte had unofficially played the course before then, however. (The name was changed to Revolution Park Golf Course in the 1970s).

Black, who is 18 years younger than Sifford, would eventually play on the PGA Tour beside him. Sifford moved from Cleveland back to his Charlotte hometown six months ago to "get away from the snow," as he said. Then Black spearheaded a charge - along with community leaders Jeff Hood and James Ross - to have the course renamed for Sifford, his old friend.

"This is one of the greatest days of my life, to see something like this happen," Black said.

Sifford was joking about those greens fees, of course. You can still play the course named for him for about $30 on weekends, including a cart fee. It's not exactly Quail Hollow Club, where the PGA Tour has set up opulent shop again this week in Charlotte, but it is very affordable.

Mayor Anthony Foxx spoke at Sifford's ceremony, noting: "We don't have days like this every day here."

No, we don't. Sifford, who can occasionally be gruff, was happy and smiling throughout the afternoon.

"It's a pleasure," he kept saying. "A real pleasure."

And it was.

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