Lee Elder played much of his career in a league for black players, but in 1975 he became the first African-American to play in the Master’s tournament at Augusta National.
Elder teeing off at Augusta in April 1975 was one of the most significant moments in the breaking of racial barriers on the pro golf tour that there has ever been. He died on Sunday, aged 87, in Escondido, California.
Elder spent most of his career playing in the United Golfers Association tour, the sport’s version of baseball’s Negro leagues. As per the rules, until 1961 anyway, the PGA of America accepted only “members of the Caucasian race.”
Elder was one of the leading players on the UGA tour for many years alongside golfers such as Pete Brown, Ted Rhodes and Charlie Sifford, the first black player on the PGA Tour.
Elder played regularly on the PGA Tour from 1968, his best finish that year being at the American Golf Classic in Akron, where he lost in a sudden-death play-off to Jack Nicklaus.
Nicklaus said in a statement released the day after Elder’s death was announced by the PGA Tour, “The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder.”
The Masters had never had an official rule in place barring black players. Still, unofficially, it was a non-starter for black players, and took the civil rights movements of the 1960s to put Augusta National under pressure to integrate their ranks.
In 1971 the tournament stance eased slightly when they announced that any player who won a PGA Tour event would qualify for the Masters. Elder came within touching distance in 1972, losing in a play-off to Lee Trevino in the Greater Hartford tournament.
But he went a step further at the 1974 Monsanto Open at the Pensacola Country Club in Florida and secured tour victory and, with it, an invitation to the 1975 Masters.
Lee Elder rented two houses near the Augusta National course and had to alternate between them throughout the tournament as a safety measure due to the death threats he was receiving for participating in the tournament.
When he teed off for his first shot of his first-round, though, a huge crowd lined the fairway. Reflecting in 2000 to The New York Times, Elder remembered the moment and the huge crowd. I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to tee off without killing somebody.”
He managed not to kill anyone, that first shot sailing right down the middle of the fairway, the rest of his first two rounds, though, not so perfect. Elder missed the cut by four strokes, but his final approach shot on Friday to the 18th was memorable for him.
“The display from the employees of Augusta National was especially moving,” Elder said in 2019. “Most of the staff was black, and on Friday, they left their duties to line the 18th fairway as I walked toward the green. I couldn’t hold back the tears. Of all the acknowledgements of what I had accomplished by getting there, this one meant the most.”
Elder said his Masters’ debut in Augusta, Georgia, was a “very nerve-racking” experience. He spoke ahead of the Masters in 2015 and remembered his first shot there.
“I was shaking so badly; I did not know if I was even going to be able to tee up the ball,” he said. “How I got through it, I do not know, just with the help of the Almighty, I got there and was able to put my ball on the tee.”
Elder played six Masters in total, his best finish being a tie for 17th in 1979. He won four PGA events and had ten runner ups on tour. He played for the U.S Team in the 1979 Ryder Cup. Elder won eight times on the PGA Senior Tour, Now the Champions Tour.
In 2019 Elder was the recipient of the United States Golf Association’s highest honor. The Bob Jones Award was presented for outstanding sportsmanship and named after the co-founder of the Masters.
Elder was honored again by the Masters last year with the announcements of scholarships awarded at local colleges in his name.
Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club,announced two scholarships will be awarded annually to a male and female golfer who competes on the golf teams at Paine College, a Historically Black College and University located in Augusta.