When Charlie Sifford won the Greater Hartford Open in 1967, he became the first African-American to win a PGA regular tournament

Golfer Charlie Sifford is shown at the Doral Open in Miami, Fla., in March 1972. Exact date is unknown. (AP Photo)
Golfer Charlie Sifford is shown at the Doral Open in Miami, Fla., in March 1972. Exact date is unknown. (AP Photo)

By Joel Alderman

Charlie Sifford competes in the 1963 Thunderbird Golf Tournament in N.Y., with his famous cigar dangling out of his mouth. (AP Photo)
Charlie Sifford competes in the 1963 Thunderbird Golf Tournament in N.Y., with his famous cigar dangling out of his mouth. (AP Photo)

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

Charlie Sifford win
An iron-willed man who spent his career fighting for inclusion, Sifford broke down another barrier in 2004, when he became the first black member inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. (AP Photo/file)

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.

Charlie Sifford
Golfer Charlie Sifford dabs at his eye as he receives applause after winning the Greater Hartford Open Invitational in Wethersfield, Ct., Aug., 21, 1967. His score was a 12 under par 272. It was his first PGA tournament win. (AP Photo/CB)

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.”

In this Nov. 13, 2014, photo former PGA golfer Charlie Sifford sits in the dining room of his home in Brecksville, Ohio. Sifford, 92, the first black professional golfer to hold a PGA tour card, will receive the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
In this Nov. 13, 2014, photo former PGA golfer Charlie Sifford sits in the dining room of his home in Brecksville, Ohio. Sifford, 92, the first black professional golfer to hold a PGA tour card, received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

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.

SportzEdge.com provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s