Lee Elder, who broke racial barriers as the first black golfer to play in the Masters and paved the way for Tiger Woods and others, has died aged 87.
The PGA Tour announced Elder’s death, which was first reported on Monday by Debert Cook of African American Golfers Digest. No cause or details were immediately available, but the tour said it had confirmed Elder’s death with his family.
A native of the Texan who developed his game during times of segregation while cadding, Elder made history in 1975 at Augusta National, which had been an all-white tournament until he received an invite afterwards. having won the Monsanto Open the year before.
Elder missed the cup on his first Masters, but forever established himself as a revolutionary figure in a sport never known for racial tolerance.
Twenty-two years later, Woods became the first black golfer to grab the green jacket, launching one of the greatest careers in golf history.
Last April, following social justice protests that rocked the nation, the Masters honored Elder by having him join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for the opening ceremonial tee shots.
Elder was in poor health and unable to swing, but he proudly waved his driver off the first tee, clearly moved by the moment.
“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most moving experiences I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” he said.
Fred Ridley, president of the Augusta National Golf Club and Masters, called Elder “a true pioneer of golf”.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Lee Elder,” Ridley said in a statement. “Lee has been 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 caddy because it was essentially the only way black people could be allowed on the course. He was able to hone his game while serving in the military, and after his release joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black Players in the early 1960s.
He became one of the best players in the UGA, but meager cash prizes made it difficult to make a living. Finally, at the age of 33, Elder was able to afford a PGA qualifying school, where he obtained 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 claim four PGA Tour wins and eight more PGA Tour Champions wins for players 50 and over. He played in all four major championships, tied for 11th place in the 1974 PGA Championship and the 1979 US Open. His best Masters result was a tie for 17th, also in 1979.
But Elder’s impact on the game went far beyond wins and losses, though it took decades for his legacy to be fully appreciated.
“It has always amazed me that the Presidents of the United States give these different awards to athletes for their athletic prowess, and here is a man who… never received the awards he really deserved,” Player said.
Elder was 40 when he played in his first Masters, so many of his best years have already been stolen from him by the scourge of racism.
The PGA had an exclusively Caucasian 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 first played in November, Augusta National recognized Elder’s enormous contributions by creating two scholarships in his name at Paine College, a historically black school in Augusta.
The club also invited him to take part in the teeing off ceremony with Nicklaus and Player at this year’s Masters.
“It’s a great honor, and I treasure it very much, and I will always treasure it,” Elder said.
Nicklaus added: “It was long overdue.”
Elder knew Robinson, who died in 1972, and was close to Hank Aaron, who suffered racist threats throughout his stellar baseball career, especially in the run-up to what was Babe Ruth’s home run.
Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th homerun on April 8, 1974.
Twelve days later, Elder won the Monsanto Open to qualify for the Masters the following year.
Elder visited Aaron shortly before Hammerhead died in January.
“We talked about a lot of things… about our sports, our particular sport and the implication that we felt we could be helping other black youth who were coming up behind us,” Elder said. “And I certainly hope that the things I have done have inspired a lot of young black players and that they will continue like this.”
Elder was at the historic Augusta National for Woods victory in 1997. He was sure to see a black man win the tournament for the first time.
After all, it was Elder who led the way.