By Paul Newberry
Lee Elder, who broke down racial barriers as the first Black golfer to play in the Masters and paved the way for Tiger Woods and others to follow, has died at the age of 87.
The PGA Tour announced Elder’s death, which was first reported Monday by Debert Cook of African American Golfers Digest. No cause or details were immediately available, but the tour said it confirmed Elder’s death with his family.
A native Texan who developed his game during segregated times while caddying, Elder made history in 1975 at Augusta National, which had been an all-white tournament until he received an invitation after winning the Monsanto Open the previous year.
Elder missed the cut at his first Masters but forever stamped himself as a groundbreaking figure in a sport that had never been known for racial tolerance.
Twenty-two years later, Woods became the first Black golfer to capture the green jacket, launching one of the greatest careers in golf history.
This past April, in the wake of social justice protests that roiled the nation, the Masters honored Elder by having him join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for the ceremonial opening tee shots.
Elder was in poor health and unable to take a swing, but he held up his driver proudly at the first tee, clearly moved by the moment.
“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” he said.
Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters, called Elder “a true pioneer in the game of golf.”
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Lee Elder,” Ridley said in a statement. “Lee was an inspiration to so many young men and women of color not only through his play, but also through his commitment to education and community. Lee will always be a part of the history of the Masters Tournament. His presence will be sorely missed, but his legacy will continue to be celebrated.”
Elder got into golf as a caddie, since that essentially was the only conduit Black people had to be permitted on the course. He was able to polish his game while serving in the Army and, after his discharge, joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black players in the early 1960s.
He developed into one of the UGA’s best players, but meager prize money made it tough to earn a living. Finally, at the age of 33, Elder was able to afford PGA qualifying school, where he earned his first tour card for the 1968 season.
The highlight of his rookie year was a memorable loss to Nicklaus on the fifth hole of a sudden-death playoff at the American Golf Classic.
Elder would go on to capture four PGA Tour victories and eight more wins on the PGA Tour Champions for 50-and-over players. He played in all four major championships, tying for 11th at both the 1974 PGA Championship and the 1979 U.S. Open. His best finish at the Masters was a tie for 17th, also in 1979.
But Elder’s impact on the game went far beyond wins and losses, even if it took decades for his legacy to be fully appreciated.
“It always amazed me that presidents of the United States would be giving these different awards to athletes for their athletic prowess, and here was a man that … was never given the awards that he actually duly deserved,” Player said.
Elder was 40 when he played in his first Masters, so many of his prime years already stolen from him by the scourge of racism.
The PGA had a Caucasian-only rule until 1961 — 14 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. It took another 14 years before the Masters finally invited a Black player.
Last year, before the pandemic-delayed Masters was played in November for the first time, Augusta National recognized Elder’s enormous contributions by setting up two scholarships in his name at Paine College, a historically Black school in Augusta.
The club also invited him to take part in the ceremonial tee shot with Nicklaus and Player at this year’s Masters.
“It’s a great honor, and I cherish it very much, and I will always cherish it,” Elder said.
Nicklaus added, “It was long overdue.”
Elder knew Robinson, who died in 1972, and was close with Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats throughout his stellar baseball career, particularly as he approached what was Babe Ruth’s home run mark.
Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th homer on April 8, 1974.
Twelve days later, Elder won the Monsanto Open to qualify for the following year’s Masters.
Elder visited with Aaron shortly before the Hammer died in January.
“We talked about several things … our sports, our particular sport and the involvement that we felt that we could help other young Blacks that was coming up behind us,” Elder said. “And I certainly hope that the things that I have done have inspired a lot of young Black players and they will continue on with it.”
Elder was at Augusta National for Woods’ historic win in 1997. He wasn’t about to miss seeing a Black man win the tournament for the first time.
After all, it was Elder who paved the way.