Lee Elder, four-time Tour winner and trailblazer, passes away at 87

Bill Fields / PGATOUR.COM

The week that he made golf history in 1975 as the first African American to play in the Masters Tournament, Lee Elder made an important point to reporters documenting his milestone appearance. “I don’t want to go down in history just for this,” he said. “I want to be remembered, if I’m remembered at all, because I was a good golfer.”

That he was, playing in 448 PGA TOUR events and winning four times, then claiming another eight victories on PGA TOUR Champions. Elder, who died early Sunday morning at age 87, endured a long, hard road to the TOUR as an African American overcoming a difficult childhood and racial discrimination to forge a successful career in a sport historically unkind to Black players.

“I think a lot of guys would have given up,” Elder said during his rookie season of 1968, when he turned 34. “I don’t think they would have stuck it out this long.”

The 2019 recipient of the Bob Jones Award for distinguished sportsmanship, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association, Elder forged his game in the years when a Caucasian-only clause barred Blacks from competing on the American professional circuit, then governed by the PGA of America. Elder turned pro in 1959 — two years before the racial prohibition was removed from PGA by-laws after legal pressure from California Attorney General Stanley Mosk — and set out on the United Golfers Association tournament trail for African American players.

“Wherever they had a tournament, that’s where we’d go,” Elder told author Pete McDaniel in Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf. Elder won four UGA Negro National Opens and, in 1966, had a stretch in which he won 18 of 22 starts.

“What Lee Elder was born with was a lot of patience, determination, guts and willpower,” famed sportswriter Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1975. “You can’t play golf without all four of these.”

Robert Lee Elder was born July 14, 1934 in Dallas, Texas, the youngest of 10 children. His father was killed in action during World War II when Lee was 9, and his mother died only three months later. He was taken in by his aunt, Sarah, when he was 11, living in Wichita Falls, Texas, and Los Angeles before returning to Texas.

“My aunt was an incredible person,” Elder wrote in Golf Digest in 2019. “She gave me love and discipline, didn’t let me get too far out of line. Her resources were limited, but she carried herself with great dignity, communicated well with people and taught me right from wrong. I was on my own after about age 16, but she got me to a point where I could care for myself.”

Elder got into golf as a caddie, playing his first 18-hole round when he was 16 with scavenged golf balls and wooden-shafted clubs bought at a second-hand store. He got by hustling golf games around Dallas, winning money by playing on one leg, on his knees or using a cross-handed grip. Eventually, Elder hit the road with Titanic Thompson, hustler extraordinaire, often posing as Thompson’s caddie before unleashing his unexpected skill to help lighten the wallets of the duo’s opposition.

“I’m not real proud of everything that happened traveling with Ti,” Elder said in Golf Digest, “because some of the ruses were a little sneaky. But it was an interesting life, and it trained me to handle pressure.”

Despite his seasoning in the high-stakes money games, being tutored by the very talented African American golfer Ted Rhodes and dominating the UGA tournaments, Elder lacked full belief in his skills until successfully qualifying for the 1966 U.S. Open, where he was grouped the first two days with teenage phenom Johnny Miller, who was brimming with confidence. Elder made the cut and the following year decided to give PGA TOUR Q-School a shot.

Not only did Elder think he had the requisite game to make it, he also had at least $6,500 in the bank, then a requirement to enter the school. Over 144 holes at PGA National Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, in October 1967, Elder was among 30 players in the 111-man field to secure playing privileges. Among those who missed were Butch Harmon, 24, and Bill Spiller, 53. Spiller was an accomplished Black golfer of the 1940s and ’50s who never got a fair shot at the big-time because of racist policies.

“It’s remarkable to look back on Lee’s life and career and realize the hardships he endured and the sacrifices he made to reach golf’s highest level,” said PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan. “To have the success he had, while paving the way for others to dream big and achieve, is a testament to the type of man he was and how much talent he possessed. The TOUR is profoundly grateful for the career of Lee Elder, and we extend our sincere sympathies to his family.”

Even as Elder began his TOUR career, joining winners Pete Brown and Charlie Sifford and other African Americans where they once were barred, lodging and travel still could be tenuous because of prejudice. And racial animus hadn’t gone the way of the Caucasian-only clause that had kept Spiller, Rhodes and other Blacks out of top-level competition.

Elder didn’t win as a rookie in 1968 but battling Jack Nicklaus in a nationally televised five-hole playoff in the American Golf Classic at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, raised his profile as a burgeoning star on the TOUR.

“Lee Elder was a pioneer, and in so many ways,” said Nicklaus. “Yes, he was the first Black player to compete in the Masters Tournament, but that simply underlined the hard work Lee put in to further the cause of everyone who has a dream to play on the PGA TOUR and perhaps thinks there were too many barriers before them. It was wonderful that the Masters Tournament and Augusta National paid a well-deserved tribute to Lee by inviting him to be an Honorary Starter on this last Masters. That morning, you could see the joy in Lee’s face, and Gary Player and I were honored to enjoy that moment with him. That memory will remain special for so many, including me, for many years to come.

“Lee was a good player, but most important, a good man who was very well respected by countless people,” added Nicklaus. “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.”

After finishing 45th on the money list during his rookie campaign (and becoming the first African American on the cover of Golf Digest), for the next decade Elder consistently stayed among the top 60 on the money list—the requirement for exempt status in that era. He only missed that standard twice. One of those seasons was 1975, when his appearance in the Masters was a dominant storyline after he won the 1974 Monsanto Open to earn an invitation. His impending appearance at Augusta National consumed his attention leading up to the Masters, a period during which he received many death threats.

“Last week, I tried to light a pencil” Elder, a heavy smoker in those days, told the Associated Press in Augusta. The pre-tournament pressure yielded to a perfect drive on the first hole but rounds of 74 and 78 led to a missed cut. He played in the Masters five more times, tying for 11th in 1979 to match his best career finish in a major, at the 1974 PGA Championship. Elder finished sixth at THE PLAYERS in 1976.

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Lee Elder with Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus during the opening ceremony at the 2021 Masters in April. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Elder’s best year came in 1978 when he won the Greater Milwaukee Open and American Express Westchester Classic and finished 13th on the money list with $152,198 in earnings. At Milwaukee, 10 years after his epic playoff with Nicklaus at Firestone, Elder flipped the script against another icon, Lee Trevino, by winning on the eighth hole of sudden death.

Trevino had been working with Elder, helping him tame a hook and move the ball left to the right, including several hours on the range at Tuckaway Country Club in Wisconsin. Fellow pro Dave Stockton, an extraordinary putter, had improved Elder’s putting stroke by making it less wristy. “It shows the true character of a guy who is willing to work with and help a fellow competitor,” Elder said late in the 1978 season, which set him up to make the 1979 U.S. Ryder Cup team, the first Black golfer to play in the biennial matches. Elder had a 1-3-0 record in a 17-11 American victory in the first Ryder Cup to include players from continental Europe.

Elder won eight times on PGA TOUR Champions from 1984 to 1988, where he felt less pressure to succeed. “The game is a whole lot more money now,” he told a Philadelphia reporter in 1987. “It’s not as cutthroat. We’re close. We joke with each other. … You can take a week off and be with your family and not worry about six guys moving past you on the money list.” Even so, Elder finished second on the 1985 money list, behind Peter Thomson, on the strength of his four victories and three runner-up finishes. Elder went on to play in 414 total PGA TOUR Champions events—an even 1,200 rounds—his last official appearance coming in 2004.

“Some of the inspiration that Ted [Rhodes] gave other Black professionals like Lee Elder rubbed off on me,” said Calvin Peete, who died in 2015 after winning a dozen PGA TOUR events, including the 1985 PLAYERS, from 1979-1986. “Lee Elder was a protégé of Ted’s, and I got inspired watching Lee play in the late 1960s. I remember watching Lee playing Jack Nicklaus in a playoff on television. Lee was the first Black I’d ever seen play, and I was so impressed by the way he carried himself.”

In April 1997, Elder returned to Augusta National Golf Club not to play but to watch. He flew from Florida to Atlanta early Sunday morning then drove across Georgia in time to see Tiger Woods tee off on No. 1 in pursuit of a record- and barrier-breaking victory. On the land where Elder became the first African American to compete in the Masters Tournament 22 years earlier, the multi-ethnic Woods wrapped up a 12-stroke victory. As Woods walked past a line of cheering fans toward Butler Cabin to receive a green jacket, he stopped to embrace Elder. Moments earlier, while completing his historic tour de force, Woods had reflected on African American golfers such as Sifford and Elder who paved the way in a sport slow to welcome them.

“I thought about those guys coming up 18,” Woods said that evening. “I said a little prayer and said thanks. I wasn’t the first. I wasn’t the pioneer. I thank them. I think that’s why this victory is even more special. Lee, because of what he did, I was able to play here. Because of Charlie, I was able to play on the PGA TOUR. I lived my dream because of those guys.”

Forty-five years after his trailblazing appearance at Augusta National, Elder was recognized by the club, which established scholarships in his name at Paine College, a historically Black college in Augusta, and invited him to be an honorary starter at the 2021 Masters, along with Nicklaus and Gary Player. Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley introduced Elder, who did not hit a tee ball due to health reasons.

“Today, Lee Elder will inspire us and make history once more—not with a drive, but with his presence, strength and character,” Ridley said to the assembled audience that included several African American PGA of America professionals and Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.

“Lee endured so much, and that made his appearance at the Masters ceremonial tee shot, with Jack and I, so special,” said Player. “He was honored for his remarkable contributions to golf. He will be greatly missed in the golf world. Rest in peace my friend.”

In 1968, Player, long an opponent of apartheid in his native South Africa, asked Elder to play in the South African PGA at a time when a Black player competing in the event was not popular among many segments of the population. It was an invitation Elder accepted.

“The aim was to put a spoke in the wheel of apartheid. He was put under immense pressure not to come, but he still came. It took serious guts, but that is Lee Elder. His trip to South Africa went better than we could have ever imagined. He received standing ovations at every turn. It was truly special to see,” said Player, who lost his wife, Vivienne, to cancer in August. “I am very sad to hear of Lee’s passing. I would like to send my deepest sympathies to his wife and family at this difficult time. He was a great contributor to society. He went through tough times in his life but was determined, like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, to build a colorless society and one that allowed for equal opportunities for all.”

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