Lee Elder, first Black golfer to compete in the Masters, dies at 87

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  • Lee Elder
    Professional golfer

Golf pioneer Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first Black player to compete in the Masters Tournament at Augusta National, has died.

Elder learned to play the game crosshanded as a caddie in rural Dallas. Ted Rhodes, another black pioneer who served as a mentor, changed him to a traditional grip and Elder would go on to dominate the United Golf Association, the tour for Blacks in the era of the PGA’s Caucasian-only rule, before earning his PGA Tour card in 1967, winning four times and qualifying for the 1979 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

“When I first qualified for the Tour, in 1967, I said I wanted to get that one thing that had not been accomplished out of the way. The Masters was the one tournament that hadn’t been integrated,” Elder once told Golfweek.

Two years before Elder qualified, a group of politicians urged Augusta National to invite Elder, but their request was rebuffed.

“We are a little surprised as well as being flattered that 18 Congressmen should be able to take time out to help us operate a golf tournament,” Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts wrote. “…We feel certain someone has misinformed the distinguished lawmakers, because there is not and never has been player discrimination, subtle or otherwise.”

Elder earned his way to the Masters holing an 18-foot birdie putt on the fourth playoff to beat Peter Oosterhuis in the 1974 Monsanto Open at Pensacola Country Club in Florida, at the same course where a few years earlier he had been refused entrance into the clubhouse and changed his shoes in the parking lot. To understand the world at the time it is important to remember that Elder was whisked away to the clubhouse, and for good reason.

Masters Tournament
Masters Tournament

Lee Elder at the Augusta National Golf Course during the 1975 Masters. Photo by The Augusta Chronicle

“I didn’t know why until we got in the car and they said they had received calls that if I won they were going to kill me,” Elder said. “We got so many calls like that.”

During the week of the 1975 Masters, he bounced between two rental houses just to be safe, and stayed up late with friends playing cards and trying to wrap his head around what it meant to break the color barrier at the Masters.

“My friend said to me, ‘Do you really know how much you’ve done?’ I said, ‘I feel like I do. I feel like I made a contribution to society.’ They said, ‘No, my man, you’re breaking the barrier that had been in existence for a long time,’ ” Elder recalled.

On a misty morning, 46 years ago Elder wore green pants, a green shirt and a green sweater. He was asked if he’d like a rainsuit. “And mess up this pretty green?” Elder said.

In April, Elder was back at Augusta National when he became the 10th honorary starter in Masters history.

“Today Lee Elder will inspire us and make history once more,” Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley. “Lee, you have the honors.”

Elder, who uses oxygen to assist his breathing, had a full set of golf clubs at his disposal at the first tee box and used a driver for balance, but he was unfit to hit a shot. When he took a seat to another round of applause, he said, “That feels good.”