The sports world is mourning the death of Lee Elder who passed away at the age of 87.
Elder, born in Dallas, Texas, started his journey with golf as a caddie as opportunities for black people were limited. There were a few black golfers that made room and encouraged Elder. It was Ted Rhodes, who was recognized as the first black professional golfer, that mentored and pushed Elder to turn pro. His mentor Rhodes and another notable black golfer, Bill Spiller, brought a lawsuit to Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) over their “caucasian only” clause.
Elder rounded out his game during his time in the Army and later joined the ranks of the United Gold Association Tour for Black players. In his 30s he moved on to the Professional Golfers Association circuit.
Elder made a name for himself and blazed a trail for black golfers by becoming the very first black golfer to play in the Master’s tournament, a feat no other black golfer had achieved. The invitation followed his victory at the 1974 Monsanto Open.
He withstood countless threats and bigotry as the nature of the sport has been quite exclusionary. Elder made history breaking down the racial barrier by choosing to play despite exorbitant amounts of discrimination and pressures.
“There was a sense of relief when I qualified [for the Masters],” Elder said in 2015. “And what I mean by relief is that they were so happy because this was the one thing that could be taken away from the tournament when people talked about it—that no Blacks had played in it. There were so many Blacks who wanted to be a part of the Masters, but they didn’t know how to go about it, because no Black had ever played there. I think that made a difference when the barrier fell.”
It wasn’t the fairytale ending at the ‘75 Masters he had hoped for as he missed the cut but nonetheless, he cemented himself in history and opened the door to other black participants. Elder was 40 years old when he was invited to play in the Master’s tournament so he very well may have been on the other side of his prime. His best finish during a Masters was in ‘79 when he tied for 17th. That did not stop him from accomplishing so much.
In addition to competing in every major championship, Elder went on to win 4 PGA Tours and 8 PGA Tour Champions for 50+ players. He also tied for 11th place at the ‘74 PGA Championship as wells the ‘79 U.S. Open. In 2019 Elder received the Bob Jones Award from the USGA.
Two decades after his groundbreaking debut at the Masters, Elder would return and watch Tiger Woods become the first Black golfer to win a Masters tournament in ‘97.
“Look out for the ones coming behind you. Lee Elder was an incredible contribution to golf and made history because of his talent, not just because he was African-American,” Harold Varner III, a Black PGA Tour player, said. “I’m fortunate to have had the chance to learn from him.”
This past April Elder was selected to be an Honorary Starter for the 85th Masters along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Joining Elder were twelve Black PGA members who are following in his path while blazing their own trails.
“Dr. Elder was able to see through the 12 of us that his struggle has made an impact, and these are the fruits of his labor,” said Scooter Clark, PGA, of Frisco, Texas, Director of the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship. “What all his work has meant and that everything leading up to 1975 wasn’t in vain.”
“To be able to actually walk up to a pioneer and say, ‘Thank you for making a way for me’ is incredible,” said Mackenzie Mack, of Callaway Golf Company in Carlsbad, California, and the first Black person to compete on Indiana State University women’s golf team. “I’m glad that we as an industry were able to acknowledge, celebrate and figuratively give roses to Dr. Elder while he could receive them.”
Elder’s health prevented him from participating in the tee shot, however when he finally held a driver, he received a standing ovation as if he’d hit a hole in one.
PGA General Manager at Hermann Park Golf Course in Houston Maulana Dotch, met Elder as a collegiate player at Bethune-Cookman University. “Just knowing his story and seeing him happy, loving, and surrounded by people who love him really touched me,” said Dotch, who made history when she became the first Black woman PGA Member to become General Manager. “This experience fueled my will to keep pushing me to grow this game and make it accessible to all.”
Many participants acknowledged that the recognition he received was long overdue but luckily, he ultimately was recognized. The Mayor of Augusta Hardie Davis Jr. presented Elder with an inaugural Mayor’s Legacy Award. The President of Paine College Dr. Cheryl Evans Jones presented Elder with an honorary doctorate degree as well as informed him that both a men’s and women’s golf scholarship at Paine College would bear his name. Finally, the President of the PGA Jim Richerson presented Elder with a plaque to honor all of his “groundbreaking contributions.”
Of this honor Elder said, “You have me going to tears. It is a great honor for me to accept this great token of what the PGA has given to me.”
Though Elder will be greatly missed, his contribution to the golf world changed the game forever.