Lee Elder made his historic Masters debut in 1975
Credit: PGA TOUR
Lee Elder, the pioneering golfer who became the first black player to appear at both the Masters and Ryder Cup, has passed away, aged 87.
In April, Elder’s contribution to the Augusta major was acknowledged when he joined Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus as an honorary starter.
“That morning, you could see the joy in Lee’s face,” Nicklaus wrote in tribute yesterday. “Gary Player and I were honored to enjoy that moment with him.”
The scene was a stark contrast to 1975 when he broke the barriers at the tournament regarded as the embodiment of racism.
In the weeks up to that Masters, Elder received so many death threats that he rented two houses in the Georgia city, moving between the two properties to conceal where he was staying. That was extreme, but by then Elder had become all too familiar with discrimination as he tried to establish himself in a white man’s game.
Elder alongside Arnold Palmer in New York
At the Monsanto Open in 1968, at the same tournament where he was to claim his first PGA Tour victory six years later to qualify for the Masters, Elder was made to change in the car park and while playing in a Memphis, a spectator picked up his ball and threw it in a hedge.
Yet the Texan, who was orphaned as a nine-year-old and after working as a caddie did not take up the sport until he was 16, would not be forced out and compiled a fine career including four PGA Tour wins, five major top-20s and an appearance in the winning US team in the 1979 Ryder Cup.
That was quite the achievement as it had not been until 1961 when the PGA of America finally stopped billing itself as a “Caucasian-only” organisation.
Elder at the 2021 Masters
“Lee was a good player, but most important, a good man who was very well respected by countless people,” Nicklaus added in his tribute, posted on social media. “The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder. Barbara and I send our heartfelt condolences to Lee’s wife Sharon and their entire family.”
Elder’s status in the game is assured, with the words of a 20-year-old at Augusta in 1997 being remembered by many. In his historic victory speech at the 1997 Masters, young Tiger Woods highlighted Elder’s influence.
Elder alongside Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters
“I’m the first member of a minority to win here but I’m not the first to play in the tournament,” Woods said on the 18th green. “Before me there was Lee Elder, and I take my hat off to him.”
Elder was in the galleries, having picked up a speeding ticket to make it in time. "When Tiger came off of the 18th I was standing on the way to where you had to go and sign your scorecard,” Elder said. He came over and embraced me and I said, ‘Congratulations champ.’"
Later, Woods was to add: "He was the first. He was the one that I looked up to. And because of what he did, I was able to play here, which was my dream."