Nobody's Fool

February 03, 2015

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Charlie Sifford studies a shot in the 1995 FHP Health Classic.

Charlie Sifford could be one ornery, old cuss. He could also be as engaging and self-deprecating as anyone. Such were the complexities of the man they called the "Jackie Robinson of golf."

Perhaps a dozen years or so ago we were on the practice range at the PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Back then, before age and ailments curtailed his playing, Charlie was somewhat of a snowbird enjoying the winter months in the Sunshine State. The homemade swing was shorter for sure, but his desire to squeeze every inch out of it was as strong as ever.

"That's still Senior Tour quality, Charlie Horse,'' I said, complimenting him on a well-struck driver.

I called him Charlie Horse because that's what the great Ted Rhodes, his idol, called him. In return, Charlie called me Peter Gunn from the TV series of the late 1950s and early '60s. Charlie was a gentleman and a treasured friend, who passed away Tuesday at 92.

"Hell,'' he grumbled, "I'm so shawt [short] now I can hear my ball land.'' Then he broke into that gravelly laugh reserved only for his close friends and fellow players.

That he could laugh at life's fastball after facing so many curves is a wonder to me even now. The laundry list has been well documented: A cigar-smoking adolescent found refuge from a hardscrabble life at a Charlotte country club. When he got good enough to play professionally, segregationist policies kept him from competing against the best white players. By the time those policies were vanquished, he was well past his prime but still managed to win twice on the PGA Tour.

The atrocities Charlie endured would have discouraged, if not defeated, a lesser man. When someone threatened to kill him if he showed up at the 1961 Greensboro Open, Charlie cursed the coward and showed up anyway.

His defiance and determination played out before one of the most hostile galleries ever at a professional golf tournament as he faced their racial epithets and insults gracefully minus pushback.

"I hadn't won the tournament in Greensboro," he wrote in his autobiography Just Let Me Play. "But I felt a larger victory. I had come through my first southern tournament with the worst kind of social pressures and discrimination around me, and I hadn't cracked. I hadn't quit."

Charlie never quit.

Perhaps that's the quality most admired by Tiger Woods, who called him the grandfather he never had. That and the fact Charlie faced adversity with his head held high.

Theirs seemed to me a very odd relationship from the start. What did the two of them have in common except brown skin? Not their backgrounds. Not their heritage. There was a very long par 5 between their generations. Their games were as dissimilar as it gets. Tiger was a turbo-charged muscle car. Even in his heyday, Charlie was more stock right off the assembly line.

It was both a sign of humility and accuracy when Charlie referred to "that little 'ol golf game of mine" during his acceptance speech at the 2004 World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

I believe Charlie was much more than a grandfather figure to Tiger. I believe his stubbornness and refusal to give in to the status quo inspired Tiger. I know from talking to Tiger that he genuinely cared for the old guy whose footprints led first his dad, Earl Woods, and then him to the wonders of golf.

Through it all, Charlie's journey probably had no more roadblocks than your average pioneer. When doors were closed, he pushed and pushed until they opened. When someone said you're not allowed, he persevered until they changed their mind -- voluntarily or otherwise.

However, there was one slight, one perceived injustice Charlie never got over. He was never invited to the Masters. It stuck in his craw like a day-old biscuit. The wound from not being invited after winning the 1967 Greater Hartford Open or the 1969 Los Angeles Open never healed.

If he was thought to be a bitter, old man, then that was the source of his bitterness. When someone would tug at the scab from that old wound by asking him about the Masters, Charlie would growl and mumble something barely audible.

"To hell with the Masters," he would say or a reasonable facsimile of that.  "Hell, I'm in the World Hall of Fame. What do I care about the damn Masters?"

They say time heals all wounds. Maybe. I'll tell you definitively if I'm lucid near the end of my journey. In the case of one Dr. Charles L. Sifford, late-in-life honors might have provided the proper salve. From the World Golf Hall of Fame nod to the recent Presidential Medal of Freedom honor, Charlie soaked up the attention and drowned all disappointments in a bucket of tears.

Yes, the ornery, old cuss could hold his head high and cry, too.