Lee Elder, first Black player at the Masters, dies at age 87

November 30, 2021

Lee Elder, who was the first Black golfer to play in the Masters Tournament, died Sunday, the PGA Tour announced. He was 87. Elder broke the color barrier on golf's biggest stage.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Lee Elder, a friend of Augusta National and a true pioneer in the game of golf," Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, 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," Ridley said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Sharon and the entire Elder family."

Golf career
Elder's first exposure to golf came when he was 10 years old. According to an interview he did on the podcast TravisMatthew, both his parents had died the year before, and his brother started working as a caddie to support the family. Elder wanted to help, too. First he picked up golf balls on the practice range. Then he became a caddie in rural Dallas. That's when he learned to play golf crosshanded. Later, Ted Rhodes, another Black golfer who served as a mentor, trained him to use a traditional grip.

Elder would go on to dominate the United Golf Association, the tour for Black golfers when the PGA's Caucasian-only rule was still in place. In 1966, the year before he earned his PGA Tour card, he won 18 of 21 UGA tournaments. Despite the success, Elder still faced an uphill battle. The UGAs purses were small and he had no sponsorships. "No one wanted to back a player in his early 30s," Elder told the Associated Press in 1974. The next year, with 10 straight tournament wins, he finally qualified. He was the first African-American to play in the South African PGA Championship during apartheid in 1971. He earned his way to the 1975 Masters by beating Peter Osterhuis with an 18-foot birdie putt on the fourth hole of a playoff in the 1974 Monsanto Open at Pensacola Country Club in Florida. A few years before, he had been refused entrance into the clubhouse of the Pensacola Country Club.

Leading up to the 1975 Masters, Elder, the first Black golfer to play at Augusta National, received death threats, which forced him to rent two houses during Masters Week.

He shot 74 and 78 at the tournament, missing the cut, but would play at the Masters an additional five times.

"I wanted it so badly," Elder once told Golfweek. "When I first qualified for the Tour, in 1967, I said I wanted to get that one thing that had not been accomplished out of the way. The Masters was the one tournament that hadn't been integrated."

Golfer's legend
Elder was in attendance when Tiger Woods won his first Masters in 1997, becoming the first Black player to do so. After winning, Woods talked about having Elder there.

"That meant a lot to me because he was the first; he was the one I looked up to," Woods said. "Because of what he did I was able to play on the PGA Tour. When I turned pro when I was 20, I could live my dream. When Lee came down that really inspired me and reinforced what I had to do."

At the time, Elder told the Chronicle he felt immense pride in the win. "(Woods is) the bridge to the future and the past. He's the bridge to the past for me and the bridge to the future for him,'' he said.

To celebrate his legacy and contributions to the sport, Augusta National Golf Club named Elder as an honorary starter along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for the annual ceremony at the 2021 Masters. Elder was present but did not hit an opening tee shot in April.

"I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in," Elder said after the ceremonial first tee. "It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National."

Masters champions Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Charles Coody and Nick Faldo, as well as fellow golfers Corey Conners and Cameron Champ attended the honorary first tee ceremony. NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann and Augusta National member Condoleezza Rice, were also in attendance.

"It's been a very long time since I've come to this," Faldo said of the honorary starter ceremony. "But I didn't want to miss this one."

Champ was the only Black golfer in the field for the 85th Masters Tournament. He told The Augusta Chronicle it was special for him being at his first Masters and to see Elder be one of the honorary starters. "Just to be the first African American to play on the Augusta grounds, just the stories from my own grandfather, again, it's – I think our society's going in the proper direction. Is there a lot to go? Very much so. But for him, again, what he's done in the communities where he lives, just throughout the entire sport for African Americans and minorities, it's huge," Champ said at the 2021 Masters. "Again, to witness that in person, it means even more."

Paine College and Augusta impact
Paine College Board of Trustees Chair Michael Thurmond first met Elder in 1975, when he was the student body president and the college hosted a reception for Elder when he became the first Black golfer to play the Masters. Thurmond knew he was meeting a historical figure.

"It was an amazing moment in my life. It was such a moment filled with history, expectation and a little bit of trepidation as well," Thurmond said Monday. "Breaking a barrier, we felt it would never be broken, at least not at that point in time."

It was during his first Masters that former Paine College President Julius Scott offered Elder lodging and meals after he was denied access to a restaurant in Augusta. Thurmond said Elder embraced Paine College and the college embraced him back.

"He became one of us. He is a Paine Knight. He loved Paine College and of course, we loved him," Thurmond said. "He was a great golfer, but quite frankly, he was a better man because of his generosity and support in the community."

It was through Elder that Augusta National decided to fund a women's golf program at Paine College, endowing two student-athletes with scholarships in Elder's honor. In April, Paine awarded him an honorary doctoral degree for his many contributions to golf and the city of Augusta.

Paine College hopes to start the women's program by fall 2022.

"It's very important for the program to get started and get going because there's so much that can come from it," Elder said in April. "The only way that you can get something to come from it and to have it be a part of is the fact that you have to work at it."

Thurmond said he was sadden to hear about Elder's death but was proud of the fact they were able to honor and recognized him while he was alive.

"I'm proud he was able to see and hear and appreciate how much we loved and appreciated him," he said. "I'm just thankful that we had this unique opportunity to express, number one, our love, number two, our appreciation and number three, to let him know that the world will celebrate his legacy long after he has passed from this earth."

He said they plan to work with Paine's administration and Augusta National in order to keep Elder's legacy alive in an appropriate and meaningful way. Thurmond said Elder's legacy will live on through the golf program.

"Each time a golfer tees up, each time a golfer takes a club from the bag, each time a birdie, an eagle or even a bogey is made, we remember the legacy of Lee Elder," he said. "A man who literally made history. He did it and still remained a humble and a caring person."

Former professional golfer and Augusta native Jim Dent said he has high expectations for the program. Dent, a Paine alumnus, said Elder deserved all the recognition he was getting.

"He deserves every bit of it. He worked hard, the first African-American to qualify to play in the Masters," he said. "He's a great player, always has been a great player, and a great guy. He's a champion and a guy of that stature, it's a great thing to do for him."

April 6, 2021, was also declared as Lee Elder Day in Augusta. In a statement Monday, Mayor Hardie Davis said he is saddened by Elder's passing and offered condolences to his family.

"Every year since 2015, I have looked forward to seeing Mr. Elder in April during the tournament. The 2021 85th edition of the Masters Tournament was especially poignant because Lee would be an honorary starter, once again breaking barriers and continuing to blaze a trail.

"On behalf of the entire City of Augusta, our profound condolences are extended to the Elder family. We pray for solace in God's sovereignty and comfort filled with peace during this time."

Jozsef Papp, Augusta Chronicle
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Lee Elder, first Black golfer to play Masters Tournament, dies at 87

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