WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Trailblazer Charlie Sifford was hailed as a “legend” by President Barack Obama and the “grandpa that I never had” by Tiger Woods as the golf world paused on Wednesday to remember the first black man to join the PGA Tour.
Sifford, who was well beyond his prime when, at the age of 38, he was accepted into the PGA in 1961, died on Tuesday in Cleveland at the age of 92.
Obama, who awarded Sifford the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, termed Sifford a “golf legend” and exalted him for “altering the course of the sport and the country he loved.”
“Charlie was the first African-American to earn a PGA tour card – often facing indignity and injustice even as he faced the competition,” Obama said in a statement.
“Though his best golf was already behind him, he proved that he belonged... blazing a trail for future generations of athletes in America.”
Sifford had two PGA wins, in 1967 and 1969, though he enjoyed many other victories on the small-money black players’ tour prior to the PGA dropping its Caucasians-only policy.
Woods, the best player of his generation, said learning of Sifford’s death had been “tough. Very tough.”
“He’s like my grandpa that I never had,” Woods told reporters at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California, after he played in the Farmers Insurance Open pro-am competition. “And it’s been a long night and it’s going to be a long few days.
Woods lauded Sifford, often called the Jackie Robinson of golf, for the “courage it took for him to stick with it and be out here and play.”
“I probably wouldn’t be here, my dad would never have picked up the game,” said Woods. “Who knows if the clause would still exist or not? But he broke it down.”
In 2004, Sifford became the first African American to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“It’s a real loss because he was a pioneer,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said. “He suffered all kinds of difficulty playing as an African American. It’s just a sad day.
“We all ought to take a minute and remember the impact that he had on the game.”
Sifford told Golf Digest in 2006, “I don’t smile much and I never laugh.”
“It’s just something that’s in me,” he said. “If you’d been through what I’ve been through, you wouldn’t be smiling, either.”
Additional reporting by Ben Everill in La Jolla, California; Editing by Eric Walsh