Golf's Jackie Robinson Receives Nation's Highest Honor

Uncle Luke, the man whose booty-shaking madness made the U.S. Supreme Court stand up for free speech, gets as nasty as he wants to be for Miami New Times. This week, Luke gives a history lesson on the black golfer who broke the color barrier.

On November 24, Barack Obama will drape the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, around the neck of Charlie Sifford, the black golfer who broke the Professional Golfers' Association of America's color barrier more than 50 years ago. Known as the "Jackie Robinson of Golf," Sifford joins Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only golfers to receive the medal. He is the ninth professional black athlete to receive the honor.

This is a big deal because the PGA spearheaded the lobbying effort on Sifford's behalf, demonstrating the organ-ization is making a concerted effort to encourage more black people to consider professional golf. In January, the PGA hired Wendell Haskins, a black man who's had successful careers as a fundraising executive for the United Way of New York City and as a music executive for Def Jam Recordings. His job at the PGA is to develop and implement initiatives to attract African-Americans to the sport.

Giving Sifford the Medal of Freedom finally acknowledges the struggle black golfers had during the Jim Crow era. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem called him "the ultimate pioneer who endured untold hardships with tremendous dignity, courage, and spirit."

I learned a lot about Sifford from my golf coach, Joe "Roach" Delancy, a black professional golfer who played with him. Roach used to tell me stories about black and white golfers getting together after the tournaments to compete. They would place bets on which golfers would win the friendly matches.

Sifford captured the Negro National Open title six times in the 1950s. He played often in Miami and once posed with Nat King Cole after winning a tournament here. The North Carolina-born champion made history in 1957 by becoming the first black player to qualify for the PGA-cosponsored Long Beach Open. He proved his worth by winning it.

Four years later, because of pressure from the California attorney general, the PGA granted Sifford full membership on the tour. He competed in 422 tournaments and won nearly $350,000. He collected $930,000 more when he went on the senior circuit.

Now young African-Americans will have the opportunity to learn about Sifford's great achievements.

Tune into Luke on The Andy Slater Show every Tuesday from 2 to 5 p.m. on Miami's Sports Animal, 940 AM.

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