“DID YOU KNOW”
Charlie Sifford was not the best black golfer at Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Golf Club!
Charlie Sifford was born in Charlotte, NC in 1922 and learned to play golf as a caddy there. At age 17 he had an altercation with a white man. For his safe keeping, his father sent him to Philadelphia to live with an uncle. He got a job with Nabisco, working in the shipping department. One day he saw a black man with a set of golf clubs waiting for a street car and asked where he was headed. The man told him about Cobbs Creek Golf Club. Charlie started spending his weekends at Cobbs Creek. After a few weeks of practice he felt the swing that had made him one of the best golfers in Charlotte returning.
Someone had told Charlie that the best golfer at Cobbs Creek was a black man named Howard Wheeler. When Charlie saw Wheeler on the practice tee, he challenged him to a game. He did not think a man with such a strange golf grip could beat him. Wheeler asked Sifford how much money he had. When Charlie replied $10, Wheeler said let’s go, we’ll play for $10 on the front nine and $10 on the back nine. With several holes left to play, Charlie’s $20 was in Wheeler’s pocket.
Howard Wheeler was born in Atlanta, GA in 1911 and learned to play golf as a caddy. Six feet-two-inches tall and one of the longest drivers in professional golf, he played cross-handed (left hand below the right). Wheeler moved to Philadelphia, where he could play golf at Cobbs Creek any day he wanted to, and there was a steady supply of money games.
At that time the PGA Tour was not open to black golfers, so they created their own tour, the United Golf Association (UGA). They held a series of tournaments on public courses. Each year there was a championship called the Negro National Championship. From 1933 to 1958 Wheeler won the championship six times. He qualified for the 1950 and 1951 US Opens.
Charlie practiced and played more rounds with Wheeler. He observed how Wheeler played the course and certain shots. Then he began to beat Wheeler on occasion. Wheeler began taking Charlie as a partner. Both lost valuable time serving in the US Army during WWII. When the war ended the UGA was back with a schedule. Wheeler took Charlie to the 1946 Negro National Open in Pittsburgh. Wheeler told Charlie that major tournament golf was different from playing money games at Cobbs Creek, but Sifford just thought Wheeler was messing with his mind. When he got there he could see what Wheeler was talking about. There were more than 200 entries, with an amateur division and ladies tournament along with the professional 72-hole tournament. In order to handle the number of entries the amateur events started a day before the professionals began. Celebrities like Joe Lewis and Billy Eckstein were entered. Wheeler won the tournament and Charlie did not fare well.
The next year the Negro National Open was at Cobbs Creek. Wheeler won again and Charlie finished second. From 1952 to 1956 Charlie won the tournament five straight times. He would win it one more time. The best day of golf in Charlie Sifford’s life was the day he met Howard Wheeler.
In 1961 the PGA removed the “Caucasian Only” clause from its constitution at the annual meeting and black golfers like Charlie Sifford got a chance to play in more PGA Tour events. Some tournament sponsors in southern states turned their tournaments into invitationals and only invited white professionals. The PGA should have taken a stand against this, but didn’t for fear of losing sponsors.
One day in the 1970s a man named Chet Harrington, who played golf, was in a trophy store in Philadelphia. He saw a dusty golf trophy on a shelf high up behind the counter. The clerk took it down from the shelf for him, saying that he was not sure what it was for. Having heard of Howard Wheeler, one of the names on the trophy, he bought it, cleaned it up and stored it in a bank vault for 35 years.
The trophy for the winner of the Negro National Championship was donated in 1935 by a black lawyer from Washington DC named Albert F. Harris. It must have been left at the trophy store for engraving and then forgotten. The trophy is now on display at the United States Golf Association.