A rough ride with Charlie Sifford
This is a new series on the 70th anniversary of Golf Digest commemorating the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.
As Charlie Sifford drifted into the twilight of his life, he began missing the little things. He rued having to give up cigars. He longed for the days of simply feeling good, especially after a heart procedure in 2006. "There's a lot I miss, and a lot I don't," he told me that year when I interviewed him for Golf Digest.
One thing Sifford didn't miss was his experience in the early 1960s trying to break through the PGA of America's Caucasian-only clause and become the first African-American golfer to play the PGA Tour. Racist shouts and murmurs never did subside. The death threats he received were real.
Not being invited to play in the Masters hurt forever. Some victims of racial discrimination eventually emerge forgiving and philosophical, as baseball's Buck O'Neil seemed to do. That wasn't the case with Sifford. He received an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of St. Andrews in 2006 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, but whatever softness was exposed on those two occasions concealed real—and justified—anger until he died at 92 on Feb. 3, 2015.
Talking to Charlie was a gritty, rewarding experience, though he rarely was in good humor. When asked if the memory of the good events in his golf life—he won two tournaments on the PGA Tour and had success as a senior—didn't please him, Sifford replied with a stare from his remaining good eye. "I don't smile much, and I never laugh," he said. "If you'd been through what I've been through, you wouldn't be smiling, either."
Few people knew Sifford better than Larry Mowry, who tried his hand at the PGA Tour in the '60s. "He was a tough man," says Mowry, now 83. "I'm reading a lot of stuff about how sweet Charlie was, but the things he went through did not go down well with him. Let's be honest: Charlie could be difficult."
One thing Mowry gained from being around Sifford was empathy. This was expressed in one of the most powerful pieces ever to appear in Golf Digest, a March 1988 reminiscence by Mowry. It’s a harrowing trip to another place in time. —Guy Yocom
It was some time back in the 1960s. I don't remember the year, but I had just finished the final round at the Doral Open and was looking to hitch a ride with someone to our next tour stop, in Wilmington, N.C. I had booked a plane reservation for that night, but I wasn't looking forward to it. There would be a long wait for the takeoff, and the planes in those days gave you a low-flying, bumpy ride with landings that would have scared Evel Knievel.
I stashed my bags in the locker room and looked around to see if anyone wanted a co-pilot for the ride to Wilmington. It was a last-minute request, so several guys were already filled up. Finally, a voice from the far end of the putting green rang loud and clear: "I'm looking for a rider." The voice was Charlie Sifford's. "Great, Charlie," I said. "My bags are packed, and I'll be ready when you are."
Charlie walked toward me with a serious look and asked, "Do you know what you're getting into, driving with me?"
I had no idea what he was implying and answered, "No problem, Charlie."
Understand that at the time I was still in my 20s and a pretty naive young man who looked up to Charlie Sifford as a golfer and as a person to admire. His game was better than mine, and the ride to Wilmington with such a fine player was an opportunity to get some high-level tips about this difficult game.
Color doesn't mean much to a professional athlete. Performance is what you admire—and I really admired Charlie's game. The thought that we were in the Deep South during a period when black and white men didn't ride in cars together never entered the head of this newcomer from San Diego.
Times have changed from the early '60s—not enough for some, and too much for others. But for those who weren't there or don't remember, the following is a chronicle of that automobile trip.
Charlie owned a new Buick Wildcat, white with red interior, wire wheels, etc. It was a beautiful car. Buick gave touring pros a special purchase price then, and many of the better players took advantage of the opportunity.
Charlie was relaxed as we pulled away from the Doral parking lot. "I hope you like to drive straight through," he said.
"Sure, Charlie, as long as you stop for plenty of coffee so we can stay awake. This is a long drive, but I'd like to get there for an extra practice round. I missed the cut last year."
Interstate highways were in the development stages then, and the road map to Wilmington looked as complicated as a pair of New Year's Day eyeballs. When we stopped for coffee, Charlie would always ask me to go get it. I thought nothing of doing it. I got some strange looks in the cafés but blamed it on my loud slacks and white shoes, which seemed out-of-bounds in those greasy spoons.
The night was moonless, and reading road signs was a chore, but we progressed well into south Georgia without error. We stopped for gas at a dimly lit truck stop. "Larry, go get a couple of Cokes; I'll take care of the gas," was Charlie's order. He seemed a little nervous.
Two cops were staring at me as I relieved the Coke machine of two bottles. They were dressed like characters in a B movie: open shirts, hats tilted back and cigars in their mouths. One of them said to me, "You jus' don't care who you drive with, do you, son?"
He had a mean look, and it matched the tone of his voice and the ugly scar on his cheek. I was so intimidated by his appearance that I couldn't utter a word. My lack of response drew a four-letter comment from him, and then both cops walked away from me and toward Charlie and the car.
Soda bottles in hand, I walked back toward the car and overheard their conversation with Charlie. Scarface asked: "Who's car is this, boy—is it yours?" Charlie suddenly put on a high-pitched falsetto voice and said he was "drivin' for mistah Larry."
Scarface seemed satisfied, but the California license plate on "my" car was the next problem. "You better drive slow and steady out of this county, or I'll run you two in," were his parting but somehow welcome words.
Charlie drove very slowly, and we both kept our mouths shut until we crossed the county line. Charlie broke the silence: "If he knew this was my car, we'd both be buried in a cotton field and never heard from again." I wanted to say something but just couldn't find the right words. Charlie lit his cigar for the first time and placed a small towel across his lap to catch any spilled ashes. "I don't usually smoke in the car, but I just have to light up after that," he said. "He was a tough-looking character, wasn't he, Larry?"
I agreed, and we drove through the darkness, not saying another word, enjoying the music on a tape of his longtime friends, the Mills Brothers. The first song, "Up a Lazy River," was somehow out of place for our mood, but it was relaxing.
By dawn, we were both suffering from eye strain. Restaurants on the old state highway were scarce, and we fought hunger for two hours. "Hey, Charlie," I said, "that looks like a good place to eat." We pulled into the parking lot of a busy, nice-looking restaurant.
Charlie said, "Get me a ham-and-egg sandwich and a cup of coffee to go, will you, Larry?" By now I was no longer naive; the rules were plain to me. Charlie was not allowed to use the same restrooms, drinking fountains or Coke machines as I was. His areas were marked for "Coloreds." Mine were "Whites only." If he were traveling alone, his only means for receiving restaurant food was to go around to the back door, to the kitchen, pay in advance and wait. There were times when the food was not served to him even after he'd paid, and he was expected to leave the grounds quietly and without complaint. Charlie lived in a different country than I did.
I returned to the car with our ham-and-egg sandwiches and coffee. We drove on, eating our breakfast. Each bite I took felt like a grapefruit as I struggled to get it down my throat.
When we arrived in Wilmington it was beautiful with the just-blooming azaleas showing the city as a multicolored delight. I had reservations at the only decent motel in town at that time, right next to a little diner called Whitey's. The name had new meaning to me now, and I joked with Charlie that all the diners from south Georgia to here were Whitey's. "Must be a chain," I said. Charlie laughed and pulled up to the motel office.
I knew the owner of the motel because I had stayed there the previous two years. I noticed my name on the reservation sheet, but he gave me no answer when I said, "Reservation for Mowry?" He just stood there, ignoring me and glaring at Charlie. "Sir, he's not staying with me," I said. "He just gave me a ride." I was too tired to get irritated.
"Oh, yes, Mr. Mowry. Good to see you again. Your room is ready and waiting for you."
I unloaded my bags from Charlie's car, thanked him for the ride and wished him luck in the tournament.
Back inside, I lay on my bed in total exhaustion. I was no longer a rookie.
I waited years to unveil this experience because Charlie Sifford would have taken harsh exception to a tell-it-like-it-was story. Times have changed, and for those of us who think life is difficult now, try walking in the shoes of Charlie Sifford in the late '50s and early '60s.