If you have 30 minutes or so to spare I encourage you to go on YouTube and watch Charlie Sifford’s 2004 induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. I had not heard of Sifford, the first African American to play on the PGA Tour, until he was award the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. If you don’t have time to watch the entire induction at least listen to Gary Player who introduced him. He spoke of seeing racist fans kick Sifford’s ball into the rough and hearing him being called the N-word while on the course. Unsurprising considering Sifford wrote in his book, “Just Let Me Play” that at the Phoenix Open, where he was given the first tee-off time, human excrement greeted him at the first green.
After Player’s speech, a congratulatory video of one of Sifford’s dear friends was played.
It was Tiger Woods.
“Not many people could have endured the indignities that he suffered through some very difficult times,” he said. “That he persevered with the grace and honor should inspire anyone to hang in there when things aren’t going your way. I know it inspires me.”
Like his hero Sifford, Woods will soon be the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The announcement came less than 24 hours after his triumphant return to glory at The Masters. And just as Presidents Obama and Trump — the two men who honored the golfers — could not be more different, so too are the circumstances surrounding Woods’ and Sifford’s recognitions. Apropos that the very tournament that refused to allow one medal winner in is where the other announced both his arrival and his return. I’m no medium but one must assume Augusta National co-founder and chair Clifford Roberts, who once said “as long as I’m alive golfers will be white and the caddies will be black,” is rolling over in his proverbial grave. Of course, Woods is a self-described Cablinasian so perhaps Roberts’ revolutions are tempered a bit.
Anyway, the point is Sifford was acknowledged by the White House for overcoming a sport that did not want him while Tiger is being celebrated for returning to a sport that desperately needs him. The Masters’ final round delivered the highest-rated morning golf broadcast in 34 years. Like Lebron James and Serena Williams, it has been proved that casual fans will tune in to see the household name presumably win. The Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony may even see viewership spike because of Woods. That’s why it’s important to know I don’t believe Sifford’s achievements were inherently more difficult than his successor. Overcoming racism and being the first brings one form of pressure. Carrying a sport while fighting your demons is another.
However I do wonder what, beyond money and titles, will be said about the game’s greatest. No person, professional athlete or otherwise, is required to make things better for the next generation. But you didn’t have to watch the tournament for long to notice how homogeneous it all appeared — still.
What is it about golf that prevented the flood of diverse domestic talent many predicted would come following Woods’ first Masters? Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson — the Jackie Robinsons of tennis — clearly have a visible tree despite socioeconomic and racial barriers. However, Sifford made the way for Tiger and then …
Making the way for those who share your race, faith, gender, insert identity here, is not a requirement for citizenship. And Woods is certainly plenty philanthropic and inspiring. But when I look at the 2004 clip of Sifford’s induction ceremony, and a fresh-faced Woods with a head full of hair, speaking glowingly about Sifford making it possible for his success, I can’t help but wonder why is that spark still just a spark? Perhaps when Woods is eventually admitted into golf’s hall of fame things will be different. Sunday, he proved magnetic enough to attract so many people from different walks of life in their celebrating of his historic achievement. It would be truly something if for his final walk at the Masters a similar diverse body is on the course walking with him.