Golfer Is Sifford Exemption's First Recipient

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Vincent Johnson, 22, teed off Thursday at the Northern Trust Open at the famous Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles against top-ranked players. He is the first recipient of the Charlie Sifford exemption on the PGA tour for minority golfers.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Guess who's leading the Northern Trust Open golf tournament in Los Angeles? It's not Tiger Woods, though, he is going to play next week for the first time since having knee surgery. No, this is another big golf star. Phil Mickelson is eight under par after today's opening round, and Vincent Johnson is just seven strokes behind.

Johnson is a 22-year-old African-American golfer who's having a kind of pinch-me moment right now. He normally plays in golf's minor leagues, but in L.A. this week, Johnson is challenging the top dogs, thanks to a first-of-its-kind free pass into the PGA.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: Vincent Johnson's chance of a lifetime was born in the men's locker room at the famous Riviera Country Club in L.A. Not long ago, Kelly Maynard, who works for this week's tournament sponsor, Northern Trust, was taking a tour of the locker room and admiring oil paintings of the men who'd won the annual PGA tournament held at the club.

Ms. KELLY MAYNARD (Northern Trust): Sam Sneed and Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and these legends of golf.

GOLDMAN: Maynard stopped in front of one picture that stood out.

Ms. MAYNARD: It's the only person of color on the wall. It's this black man who's got a giant cigar in his mouth and incredible steely look of determination, and I really said, well, who is that? And they said, well, that's Charlie Sifford. And, you know, then they told me Charlie's story.

GOLDMAN: Maynard was taken by the story of Sifford's tenacious efforts to break into the white world of golf. She and her colleagues consulted with Sifford, now 86, and decided to create the Charlie Sifford exemption.

Mr. VINCENT JOHNSON (Professional Golfer): You know, on days that it's sunny, which down here it's pretty much all the time, you know, it's fine, but days that it's raining, I look like such a doofus, you know?

GOLDMAN: On a recent, rare rainy day in Phoenix, the winner of the first Charlie Sifford exemption was feeling a bit self-conscious about his prescription sunglasses. But Vincent Johnson hardly looked the doofus…

(Soundbite of golf swing)

GOLDMAN: …as he crushed 300-yard drives in the soggy Arizona desert. Johnson plays on the local Gateway Tour, which is like a minor league to the PGA. Currently, he's tied for 103rd on the Gateway money list, having won $2,280 in five events, quite a jump to this week, playing in L.A. against the likes of Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington.

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, I still feel like I'm going to wake up and, you know, find out that it was just a dream.

GOLDMAN: Beyond his race, Johnson got the exemption because he fit three criteria the best. One, he excelled at the game. Two, he wasn't eligible for the PGA Tour through the normal rounds. Three, and perhaps most important to Sifford, Johnson carried himself well on and off the course. He says he learned that from his dad.

Mr. JOHNSON: When you're the lone African-American in a certain setting, you are kind of representing your race. So you have to understand that, you know, you can't act a certain way and sometimes, you know, I wasn't always how I should be, but my dad, you know, he was very stern on how you should conduct yourself.

GOLDMAN: If anyone had good reason to behave badly, it was Charlie Sifford. During the 1950s, Sifford dominated an all-African-American tour that played events on public courses, but he always wanted to break into the PGA, which had a Caucasian-only rule in its bylaws. Because he pushed, he suffered.

Jim Gullo, who wrote a book with Sifford called "Just Let Me Play," says the abuse ranged from death threats to an incident with three black playing partners at a country club.

Mr. JIM GULLO (Co-author, "Just Let Me Play"): He was the first group in the morning to tee off, and when they got to the first green and rolled in their putts, they found the cup filled with excrement.

GOLDMAN: Sifford's tenacity helped force the PGA of America to scrap its Caucasian-only clause in 1961. Sifford was nearly 40 when he became the first African-American to play the PGA. It was past his golfing prime, but he still went on to win two PGA Tour events.

The Charlie Sifford exemption is unique in major sports. Vincent Johnson is one lucky golfer among many who toil in obscurity. He says he'll remember forever his first time in the bright lights.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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