By Joel Alderman
When Charlie Sifford, the first African-American allowed to play on the all-caucasian Professional Golfers’ Association Tour, died recently (Feb. 3), it evoked memories of his widely-acclaimed landmark victory at the Greater Hartford Open on the Wethersfield Golf Course in 1967.
He was 45 at the time, and was heralded as the Jackie Robinson of golf. In fact, in 1947, the same year Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, he had given Sifford advice not to quit in spite of the hostility he would encounter.
Sifford took Robinson’s direction. He never quit, and eventually the former caddie in Charlotte, North Carolina, became the first African-American to be allowed to paticipate in a PGA event. Over the years he encountered discrimination, death threats, hostility from other players, lack of communication by some of those teamed with him in pro-ams, heckling from the gallery, and exclusion from several tournaments and hotels.
But he hung in there, usually competing with a frown on his face, attacking every golf course he played on while clinching a cigar in his mouth. The cigars became his unofficial trade mark.
The highlight in Wethersfield
1967 was the first year the annual stop in Connecticut would be called the Greater Hartford Open (GHO). Before that it was the Insurance City Open.
On August 20, 1967, Sifford was five strokes behind going into the last round. He won by one stroke over Steve Opperman. He finished with a seven-under-par 64 for 272, after sinking a 4-foot putt. His line for the tournament was 70-67-69-67. He thus became the first of his race to win a standard PGA event.
In 1964, another black golfer, Pete Brown, had won the Waco Turner tournament in Oklahoma, which was a relatively minor competition that had a short existence and was not on the same level as even the GHO.
Before the GHO, Sifford’s best showing was to take a 54-hole title in California ten years earlier, but that did not count the same as the GHO because it was under four rounds.
Players and fans at the GHO were pulling for him
Sifford not only won over the gallery at the Wethersfield Country Club, but several others in the field, including the great Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf, Ray Floyd, Dan Sikes, Doug Ford, and Al Geiberger.
Geiberger, the 1965 PGA champion, who was paired with Sifford in Wethersfield, said, “I was pulling for Charlie. It took my mind off my game.”
Bobby Cole, the other member of the threesome, said “He was tremendous.”
Sifford’s prize money for winning was $20,000, which may have been slightly under average then, but not bad for 1967.
The GHO’s tribute to another African-American, Sammy Davis, Jr.
Charlie Sifford’s achievement at Wethersfield was, ironically, followed a few years later, in 1973, when the tournament was sponsored by and renamed for the great entertainer, Sammy Davis, Jr. The affiliation lasted until 1990.
There have been a few more name changes since then, to the Canon, Buick and now the Travelers Championship.
Sifford paved the way
In 1960, following a legal proceeding brought by the California Attorney General, Sifford was approved as the first black player for a PGA Tour event, and the following year the Caucasions-Only clause was dropped. In 1964, he was awarded a full PGA membership.
After the GHO
In 2001, Sifford, during a pre-tournament affair at the Hartford Radisson, recalling the time he won, said “The people may have cheered hard for Arnold Palmer, but I know that year they were all pulling for me. I guess there were 20,000. It was my golf course.”
Sifford would win only one other PGA Tour event, the Los Angeles Open in 1960, in a playoff with Harold Henning.
In 2004, he became the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla. He entered in the lifetime Achievement category.
In his acceptance speech, Sifford said “If you try hard enough, anything can happen.”
Afterwards, the Mexican-American golfer, Lee Trevino, gave the Orlando Sentinel this description of Sifford. “You have to put him in the Jackie Robinson category.”
Reactions then and now
When Sifford made the winning putt at the GHO, in 1967, the gallery applauded for two minutes, and while he received the trophy and made his acceptance speech, he was openly crying for joy, as were so many of those watching.
Following his death this month at age 92, those who remember him well were also crying. Only this time they were crying in sadness, for the memory of Charlie Sifford.