As with many other American sports, professional golf was segregated for much of the 20th century. The Professional Golfers' Association of America even went so far as to write a "Caucasian-only" clause into its bylaws in 1934. Charlie Sifford set out to end golf's segregation after World War II. Had he done so in his prime, perhaps Sifford -- rather than Tiger Woods -- would have been the first African-American golfer to win a major championship. Nevertheless, Sifford eventually succeeded in breaking the color barrier, becoming the first black PGA golfer.
John Shippen became the first person of African-American descent to play in the U.S. Open – which is run by the United States Golf Association, not the PGA -- in 1896. Shippen's father was African-American and his mother was a Shinnecock Indian. While some players threatened a boycott if a black golfer were permitted to compete, USGA President Theodore Havemayer stood his ground. Shippen tied for sixth and went on to play in five more U.S. Opens. Ted Rhodes was the second African-American to play in the U.S. Open, in 1948. In the 1950s, Ann Gregory became the first black player in the U.S. Women's Amateur, while Sifford broke a key barrier by winning the Long Beach Open. Although it wasn't a full PGA event, the PGA co-sponsored the tournament and the field contained many well-known white players.
Born in North Carolina in 1922, Sifford caddied and learned to play at a young age, becoming a scratch golfer by the time he was a teenager. “I started playing golf because I loved the game,” Sifford told the told the "Salisbury Post," “and I love it because it requires you to use your brain.” By 1947 he had determined to play pro golf and eventually break the sport's color barrier. He played mainly in segregated events, winning the National Negro Open five consecutive times, from 1952 through 1956. After he earned his PGA Tour card in 1960, pressure from the California attorney general helped convince the PGA to drop its Caucasian-only membership rule. Sifford, at age 39, then became the PGA's first African-American player. Although past his prime, he won two PGA Tour events plus the 1975 Senior PGA Championship. Sifford was enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.
After the Breakthrough
Two years after Sifford joined the PGA Tour, Althea Gibson -- best known as a star tennis player -- became the first black woman to play on the LPGA Tour. Pete Brown was the first African-American player to win a regular PGA event, recording his victory at the 1964 Waco Turner Open. Lee Elder was the first black man to play in the Masters, in 1975, and also the first African-American to represent the United States in the Ryder Cup, in 1979. Calvin Peete won 12 PGA tournaments, beginning in 1979, making him the most successful black golfer prior to Tiger Woods.
Tiger Woods is easily the most successful player of African-American descent in the history of golf. Among his many highlights, Woods won three consecutive U.S. Amateur Championships from 1994 through 1996. He then turned pro and earned the 1996 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year award. Woods won his first major championship, the Masters, by 12 strokes in 1997. He completed the career grand slam in 2000 after winning that year’s U.S. Open and British Open and was the world’s top-ranked player for much of the following decade.