Charlie Sifford

Charlie Sifford passed away on Tuesday, and I was reminded that Sifford was the topic of the only column (I think) that I’ve ever had spiked. I don’t bring this up to rehash old memories or embarrass any of the people involved (including myself) but instead to make a point about Charlie Sifford and what he faced in his life both as a golfer and a man.

I was the columnist at the Augusta Chronicle in the early 1990s, and it’s fair to say that in those days the newspaper was hypersensitive to the feelings of Augusta National. I wouldn’t say the paper was in the club’s hip pocket; the Chronicle reported all sorts of Augusta National stories, positive and negative and controversial. But, there was a very real sensitivity, especially to questions of race. In 1992, Charlie Sifford wrote a book called “Just Let Me Play.” I had just started as columnist at the paper. I thought it would be a good idea to talk to Sifford.

You might know Sifford’s story: He began golfing at the time he began caddying, age 13. He came of age in the 1950s, in the years of Rosa Parks and Brown vs. Board of Education, just after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. In golf, like in baseball, African Americans had created their own tournaments, their own circuit, and Sifford was a star. It was clear to anyone watching — just as it was clear for Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and others before Robinson — that Sifford could compete with the best white golfers in the world.

But he could not get into the PGA tournaments. Unlike in baseball, where there were unwritten rules, the PGA had a caucasians-only clause in its constitution. In 1952, things began to change. Joe Louis, the beloved former heavyweight champion, had just retired from boxing. Louis was a very good golfer, and that year he was given a sponsor exemption (by General Motors) to play in the San Diego Open. The exemption was pulled because of the white’s only rule. Louis appealed the governor of California, who made it clear the rule was unconstitutional. So Joe Louis did play. He was the first black man to play in the PGA Tour event, though not as a competing professional.

Louis opened the door to a handful of other black golfers — Sifford, Leonard Reid, Ted Rhodes, Eural Clark, Bill Spiller among others — qualifying for a handful of tournaments that allowed black players. Charlie Sifford was probably the best golfer of the bunch. He was certainly the most resolute. The white tournaments were tests of his will. Sifford endured all sorts of taunts and death threats and awfulness. Sometimes, he would find human waste in the hole he was putting toward. Sometimes, he would hear people in the crowd talking about finding him after the round and lynching him. Sifford was a passionate man; he wanted to hit some of these people with a 7-iron. Jackie Robinson told him to endure. Sifford endured. In 1961, along with Joe Louis and others, he successfully fought to have the shameful white-only claus removed from the PGA’s bylaws. Sifford’s PGA Tour career began when he was almost 40.

Sifford played — and played well. He won two PGA Tournaments in his career, which is utterly remarkable because of his age and the things he had to deal with. He would have to put on his shoes in his car because he was not allowed in locker rooms. He was threatened so often — and as a golfer he was constantly exposed to crazy people — that he once said he never felt at ease. As Jim Murray once wrote, “You can make book Arnold Palmer couldn’t overcome a handicap like that. You would have thought the other guys would give him two-a-side at first, just to be fair. … Charlie didn’t need them.”

Sifford was never invited to play in the Masters, not even after winning the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 or the Los Angeles Open in 1969. The real shame was in ’69 winning a big event like the Los Angeles Open was not an automatic Masters qualifier (there was a point system that year; there’s some debate about whether the rules were changed to keep Sifford out).

That same year, the Masters former champions were given the chance to invite a player. Art Wall Jr. voted for Sifford. As far as anyone knows, none of the other champions did. Instead they voted for Bob Murphy who was already in the field. Nobody wanted to shake up Augusta National; the former champions did not want to get into the fight. It is something Jack Nicklaus, among others, has regretted.

Jim Murray went to the Greater Greensboro Open, which was Sifford’s last chance to qualify for the Masters, and when Sifford played poorly, he said: “Now they can keep their tournament down there lily-white.” Murray, in a classic column, wrote with a special kind of fury:

GREENSBORO — OK, rest easy, Jefferson Davis! Put down the gun, John Wilkes booth. Let’s hear a chorus of Dee-eye-ex-eye-eee! Run up with the Stars and Bars. You won’t have to blindfold that Confederate general’s statue after all. Downtown Tobacco Road is still safe from the 20th century.

The Masters golf tournament is as white as the Ku Klux Klan. Everybody in it can ride in the front of the bus.

That column inspired a passionate back-and-forth between Murray and the legendary golfer and Masters founder Bobby Jones, but for Charlie Sifford nothing came of it. He never did play in the Masters. It rankled him. The premise of my own column, as I recall, was to talk about his life. But Sifford wanted to talk about the Masters. And talk he did. I do not remember much of what he said, sadly. I remember he was very pointed. And I remember him saying: “They’ll never let you write this column.”

And I was reminded by my friend Ed of the quote I used as the last line in the column. Get to that in a minute.

I fully knew it would be tricky to get in a column about Sifford ripping the Masters for its stance on race. But I idolized Murray, had read all his Sifford columns, and I wanted to write something about him too. I also remembered Roger Kahn in “The Boys of Summer” explaining how he wrote about the Dodgers using a racial slur about Junior Gilliam. “Eventually,” he wrote, “the Tribune published the cryptogram without a single stroke of editing.” This wasn’t the same thing by any stretch, but I thought I could write my own cryptogram.

I remember the theme was something like this: “You might not agree with Charlie Sifford, but after the life he has lived he deserves to be heard.” I remember thinking that this logic was unassailable. The man had endured every kind of indignity an athlete can endure. He had to be heard, right?

Ed reminded me of the kicker: “Those people from Augusta National,” Sifford said, “they’re from another planet.”

The column was killed. I recall a vague explanation from a somewhat sheepish editor. The column, he said, wasn’t being killed, exactly, it just needed to be rewritten after giving Augusta National the chance to respond. But the editor and I both knew this was wordplay. Augusta National in those days would never respond even to innocent requests that would heap nothing but glory upon the club. I had tried to get a comment — it had not even reached the “Yeah, we’ll get back to you” level of rejection. There was no chance they would respond to Charlie Sifford. And they did not. I tried again, though probably half-heartedly. The column died. As I think about it now, I should add: I was young and pretty terrible as a columnist. The column might have been absolutely unprintable, I don’t know. I wish I had kept it somewhere. I did not keep it. Stuff was harder to keep in those days.

Sometime later, I saw Charlie Sifford — he did not remember me or the story I had wanted to write. But he was very patient as I explained to him what had happened. He reacted as if I was telling him the weather. Sifford had lived the life of a pioneer, a life of resolve and courage and small triumphs and bitter disappointments. One more quote from Jim Murray: “Golf was not a game for ghettos. Neither did it leave any time for picket signs, joining demonstrations or running for office. Charlies birdied his way through society prejudice. He broke barriers by breaking par. His weapon was a nine-iron, not a microphone.”

When I finished explaining, Sifford said, without bitterness, “Well, of course they didn’t print that. What did you expect?” Then he smiled and patted me on the shoulder and walked off, leaving me to work out the lesson.