As Charlie Sifford worked his way through the first nine holes on the opening day of the 1959 U.S. Open, he grimaced with each swing.
These were supposed to be the best four days of his life. He and Teddy Rhodes were playing one of golf’s most prestigious tournaments two years before the sport’s governing body would officially change its bylaws to allow black golfers to participate. But Sifford was struggling mightily.
After Sifford got through his opening nine, the New York Amsterdam News‘ Ray Mitchell approached and asked what was troubling him. Sifford told the reporter that he was playing with hemorrhoids, which were making him extremely weak and made him question whether he’d be able to finish the tournament.
Dr. Shag Hogan, a friend of Sifford’s, was alerted to his condition and treated him before his noon tee time on the second day of the U.S. Open. Mitchell also talked to folks around the course who informed him that a golfer would need a score of 150 to remain in play, and he relayed that message to Sifford.
Rhodes ultimately missed the cut by two strokes after shooting scores of 77 and 75. Billy Casper won the tournament with a 2-over-par 282 at Winged Foot Golf Course in Mamaroneck, New York, while Sifford compiled scores of 78-72-73-76 for a 299 and became the first African-American to finish the U.S. Open.
“Many who did not see this golf course and the weather conditions the tourney was played under will not fully appreciate what I mean when I say Sifford played a great four rounds,” Mitchell wrote in 1959 of the June 11-15 tournament.
After receiving treatment, Sifford was able to play more freely and immediately performed better, finishing the second day with a 72 — the exact score he needed to proceed. At one point, Sifford needed to complete a breaking putt on a 20-foot downhill. None of the 4,000 spectators expected Sifford to make the putt, and it was palpable as they sneered and made remarks under their breath. But Sifford walked onto the green with a poker face and didn’t look at anything but his ball and the terrace ahead of him, and because he was so calm the gallery was suddenly quiet. After he initially stroked the ball, it appeared as if it might stop 2 feet short. But some great power was at play, as the ball willed itself into the hole, and the crowd let out a huge shout that could be heard across the course.
Mitchell, who had been standing at the start of the putt, found himself on his knees and overtaken by happiness witnessing this historic moment. After the round, Sifford praised Hogan for allowing him to play at his best.
“Dr. Shag Hogan is a fine doctor, [and] a fine man,” Sifford said. “He kept me in the tourney.”
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