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 to follow, has died aged 87.
The PGA Tour announced Elder’s death, which was first reported on Monday by African American Golfers Digest’s Debert Cook. No cause or details were immediately available, but the tour confirmed Elder’s death along with his family.
A native Texan who developed his game during times of segregation while caddying, Elder made history in 1975 at Augusta National, which had been an all-white tournament until he received an invite after winning the Monsanto Open the previous year.
Elder missed the cut in his first Masters but forever established himself as a revolutionary figure in a sport that had never been 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 paid tribute to Elder by having him join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for the ceremonial teeing off.
Elder was in poor health and unable to take a 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 seen or been part of,” he said.
Fred Ridley, president of the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters, called Elder “a true pioneer in 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 playing, but also through his commitment to education and community. Lee will always be a part of Masters history. His presence will be greatly missed, but his legacy will continue to be celebrated.
Elder got into golf as a caddy because it was essentially the only conduit black people were to be allowed on the course. He was able to polish his game while serving in the military and after his discharge joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black players in the early 1960s.
He became one of the best players in UGA, but the meager prize money made it difficult to earn a living. Finally, at the age of 33, Elder was able to afford a PGA qualifying school, where he earned his first touring 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 go on to have four PGA Tour wins and eight more PGA Tour champion wins for players 50 and older. He played in all four major championships, finishing tied for 11th at the 1974 PGA Championship and the 1979 US Open. His best finish at the Masters 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’s always amazed me that the presidents of the United States bestow these different awards on athletes for their athletic prowess, and here is a man who… never received the awards he actually deserved,” Player said.
Elder was 40 when he played his first Masters, so many of his early years had already been stolen from him by the scourge of racism.
The PGA had a Caucasian-only 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 played in November for the first time, Augusta National recognized Elder’s enormous contributions by establishing two scholarships in his name at Paine College, a historically black school in Augusta. .
The club also invited him to take part in the ceremonial teeing off with Nicklaus and Player at this year’s Masters.
“It’s a great honor, and I treasure it very much, and always will,” Elder said.
Nicklaus added: “It was long overdue.”
Elder knew Robinson, who died in 1972, and was close to Hank Aaron, who faced racist threats throughout his glittering baseball career, particularly in the run up to what was Babe Ruth’s home run.
Aaron hit his record 715th home run 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 Hammer died in January.
“We talked about several things…our sports, our particular sport and the involvement that we thought could help other young black people who were coming up behind us,” Elder said. “And I certainly hope the things I’ve done have inspired a lot of young black players and they will continue.”
Elder was at Augusta National for Woods’ historic win in 1997. He was sure to see a black man win the tournament for the first time.
After all, it was Elder who paved the way.
By PAUL NEWBERRY AP National Writer