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Fresh Air Remembers Charlie Sifford, Who Broke Barriers In Golf


This is FRESH AIR. Charlie Sifford, the first black player admitted into the PGA - the Professional Golfers' Association - who was also the first black man to play on the PGA Tour died Tuesday night at the age of 92. We're going to listen back to my 1992 interview with him. To get into the PGA in 1960, Sifford had to challenge the Caucasian clause. That clause, which remained in the association's constitution until 1961, stated, professional golfers of the Caucasian race over the age of 18 shall be eligible for membership.

During Sifford's career, he won over a million dollars in official prize money. In 2004 he became the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. President Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom last November. I spoke with Sifford when his memoir "Just Let Me Play" was published. He said then that there was still no place for a black man in professional golf. Of course, that was before Tiger Woods. Yesterday Woods said, without Sifford, I probably wouldn't be here. He paved the way for a lot of us.

Here's my interview with Sifford.


GROSS: Your introduction to golf was as a caddie at a country club in North Carolina. It was a country club that blacks were not allowed to be members of, blacks were not allowed to actually play on the course. So how did you actually learn to play on a whites-only course when you were a caddie?

CHARLIE SIFFORD: I guess it's just a gift from God, you know? Because I used to get out and I used to - I'm from a very, very poor family. I had my father and mother, they had six kids, and my father was a laborer. And when I'd get out of school in the afternoon I would go to the golf course, and I just picked the game up. And when I was 13 years old I could shoot 70 - even-par 71, one over par and then something like that. I just took a liking to the game.

GROSS: Would you have to sneak onto the course to play? Or would they let you play as a caddie, even though the course was officially closed to backs?

SIFFORD: Well, we had a day we called Caddie Day Monday. (Laughter). But sometimes I would slip out on the golf course and that's why the gentleman that owned it, Sutton Alexander, a very nice man - and God bless him, he passed - and he used to let me - take me out and we'd play, you know? But after, all the members of the golf course got to talking about it. So he asked my mother and father if they would let me go somewhere where I could play golf, and that would be Philadelphia. I had an uncle up there and I went to Philadelphia in 1939.

GROSS: Because there was a public course nearby that you could play at?

SIFFORD: Right. It's still there. (Laughter).

GROSS: Now, you became Billy Eckstine's golf teacher, valet and partner on the course. So you traveled with the band?

SIFFORD: Oh, yes.

GROSS: That must've been fun.

SIFFORD: I was in charge of the musicians and I was in charge of taking his clothes to the theater. When I'd take his clothes to the theater, I would head for the golf course, wherever I could find one, and do my little scene. (Laughter).

GROSS: So now, Eckstine played golf and you say that you used to hustle with Eckstine. What were your hustles like?

SIFFORD: I taught him how to play golf. We used to go to these different cities, you know? And you know how some of the guys are. They see Billy Eckstine making all this money so they try to sneak out to the golf course and rob him. So we were prepared for that. We used to go into different places, you understand, and the guys used to call him up to come play. So he said, OK, but I have to bring my chauffer with me. You know? I was the chauffeur. (Laughter). And the pro, too. So we used to go out, and if we see that - if I see that the guys couldn't beat him, you understand, I'd be playing turkey. I'd be hitting my ball all out through the woods and it went, and when things get real tough then I would come in, you know?

GROSS: Now, you say that being the first black on the PGA tour was one of the most frightening and dangerous things you ever faced. What was dangerous about it?

SIFFORD: Could you imagine a black man going to North Carolina to play on a PGA-sponsored golf tournament with all white players and one black, first time it ever happened? That's enough to be afraid of.

GROSS: Where you threatened?

SIFFORD: Oh, yes. After the first round of the tournament I shot 68 and led the tournament the first day. And as I went back to these friends' house I was living with - I wasn't in a hotel - and the phone rang and they asked to speak to Charlie Sifford, so I answered the phone. So this guy said, you Charlie Sifford? So I said, yep. So he said, you'd better not bring your - back to the golf course tomorrow. So I told him, I said, well, I tee off at 9:40 and whatever you're going to do, you'd better get ready to do it because I'll be there. So I went out, teed off and about 10 or 12 guys started on number one and took them before the 14th hole before they could arrest them all.

GROSS: What were they doing?

SIFFORD: Hollering, yelling, calling me names - didn't hit me. Thank God they didn't. I'm sure I wouldn't, you know, may not have been here today as a successful black professional. (Laughter). That's why I said that Jackie Robinson, you understand, he was in a different category than me. And he was in a ballpark. See, I'm between those ropes and touchable, you know? Anything could happen. But in the ballpark he was more safer than I was.

GROSS: Of course, he had a lot of things thrown at him, didn't he?

SIFFORD: He had eight guys with him anyway, you know? And I'm nobody but me and 14 golf clubs.

GROSS: Well, how did you golf that day? You know, there's such a hush that falls over the crowd when somebody's taking their swing, and here you had all these hostile people out to get you who were hollering and insulting you as you were playing. Did you play well that day?

SIFFORD: I think I shot 73 that day.

GROSS: What was par?

SIFFORD: Seventy-one. I played well behind that because you know, I had made up my mind I was going to go through with it anyway. You know, long as someone didn't hit me, you know? Ain't nothing they can do to turn me around, you know, to break my concentration and break my determination. Because I had started and I wasn't going to quit.

GROSS: Now, what would happen when you would play in a tournament on a course or in a club that barred blacks? Were you allowed in the clubhouse? Were you allowed in the locker room?

SIFFORD: At first - at the beginning I wasn't allowed in the club. And I wasn't allowed - I had to go in the locker room to eat. I couldn't eat with them.

GROSS: When did that start changing?

SIFFORD: It started after '64 or '65.

GROSS: How much golf are you playing now?

SIFFORD: I play golf just about every week. I'm playing on the Senior Tour now - super seniors - I'm a super senior. (Laughter).

GROSS: That's one of the really great things about golf, isn't it, that you don't have to give it up?

SIFFORD: That's right. You can play till you get to 100. Of course, if you take care of yourself like me - exercise, train, stay away from the ladies. (Laughter).

GROSS: Do you feel that you still face discrimination?

SIFFORD: Oh yeah, of course. You know, I believe there's - now don't get me wrong, I'm not prejudiced - there's some white people in this country who'll never accept the black man as a golfer. That's true.

GROSS: Now, why do you think that is? What is it about golf that has been so resistant?

SIFFORD: I don't know. That's what at first - when I was 13 years old and I had to leave North Carolina to come to Pennsylvania to play golf, I always wondered why that they didn't want a black man to play golf. I've proved everything. I proved to the world that a black man could play golf and be a gentleman. I never - they never seen me out on the tour with three or four different women. They have never seen me with no women, and I've never been with any - they've never saw me bothering any of their wives. So I don't know what they're afraid of. And we're outnumbered anyway. If they had 20 blacks out there well, hell, you've got 4,500 whites. So I mean you know, well, what is it? We don't have any tails. I just don't understand it.

GROSS: So what's your next big game?

SIFFORD: I'm going to Charlotte, N.C. - my home town - to play next week.

GROSS: That's - you're not going to be on the course where you got started, are you?

SIFFORD: No. (Laughter). We'll be on another golf course because I wasn't allowed there, either. (Laughter). But that don't bother me anymore. I just go ahead and take off my shoes, go in the locker room, do just like the rest of them do and better not be stopped. They don't - they know who I am and they know I might fight back now. Before, I wouldn't fight back because I had to prove a point. But the point is proven now. And I'm proud of my book. And I know that some of the kids that read this book, they're going to get interested in golf. I know we have some golfers out there. We just have to find them.

GROSS: Well, I wish you good luck.

SIFFORD: Thank you very much.

GROSS: And thank you very much for talking with us.

SIFFORD: Thank you, nice talking to you.

GROSS: Charlie Sifford, recorded in 1992. He died Tuesday, at the age of 92. Here's what's coming up on tomorrow's show.


BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Traffic accident? Better call Saul.

GROSS: Saul Goodman, the sleazy, fast-talking lawyer from "Breaking Bad" now has a spinoff series about to premiere on AMC called "Better Call Saul." We'll feature our interview with Bob Odenkirk, who plays Saul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.