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Lee Elder, who was the first Black golfer to play in the Masters in 1975, died Nov. 28, 2021 at age 87. A native of Dallas, Texas, Elder was born in 1934, one of 10 children. His father, a coal truck driver, was killed during Army service in Europe in World War II when Lee was a boy. His mother died three months later.
Elder had a rather remarkable history. As a teenager he caddied at Tennison Park Golf Club, an all-white club in Dallas (a course I have played 40 times) to provide cash for his family. He then went to live with an aunt in Los Angeles and dropped out of high school to work as a caddie again. He was starting to play golf well enough to attract the attention of a legendary gambler and hustler Alvin Clarence Thompson, who was known as Titanic Thompson. As Mike Purkey of SI.com writes (Nov. 20, 20211), “They traveled the country together and it was standard fare that Thompson would find a mark and beat him the first day and then give the unsuspecting pigeon the chance to break even on the next day by playing against Elder, who posed as Titanic’s caddie.” Another of Titanic’s ruses was to pass Elder off as one of the course maintenance crew and then had him come down off his tractor when Thompson had convinced a couple of club members that he could beat them in an 18-hole match even with “that kid” as his partner. Then Elder would go out and shoot 63. He made more money in those games than he ever did as a caddie.
At 18, after playing against the heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and avid golfer, Elder became a protégé of talented Black golfer Ted Rhodes who was Louis’s golf instructor. Following a two-year stint in the Army stateside, Elder joined the United Golfers Association in 1961 and soon became notable player. In one of stretch of 22 consecutive tournaments, he won 18.
At age 33 Elder had saved enough money to afford a trip to PGA qualifying school, where he managed to play well enough to earn his first tour card for the 1968 season. Even though he wasn’t a golfing household name at that time, that same year he would finish tied with Jack Nicklaus after 72 holes at the American Golf Classic tournament at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, losing after five holes to Jack in a sudden-death playoff. Elder went on to win four times on the PGA Tour, including the 1974 Monsanto Open, which was the win that earned him the spot in the Masters. The PGA had a “Caucasian-only” clause (rule) in their by-laws which was eliminated in 1961. But the Masters had no clause baring Black golfers, yet, unofficially remained closed to them. With the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, it came under increasing pressure to integrate its ranks. In the run-up to the Masters tournament, Elder received numerous death threats. He rented two houses near the Augusta National golf course and moved between them as a security measure. He did miss the cut in his first Masters appearance, but he would go on to make five more appearances at the Masters, with his best finish a tie for 17th in 1979. As a senior player over 50 in 1984, Elder joined the Senior Tour (now Tour Champions) and won eight times, earning more than $1.6 million. He also won four tournaments overseas.
Elder also made history by becoming the first Black player to compete for the U.S. in the Ryder Cup in 1979, helping the U.S. to a 17- 11 win over Europe. “As I look back over the accomplishments I’ve had in my life, the one thing that I’m proudest of is playing in the Ryder Cup and representing my country,” Elder told Golf Digest in 2020. That’s a real American! Elder received The United States Golf Association’s highest honor in 2019, the Bob Jones Award, named for the co-founder of the Masters, and presented for outstanding sportsmanship. Lee Elder played through the scourge of racism, he broke down enormous barriers, and paved the way for Tiger Woods. I think Jack Nicklaus said it best: “The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder.”