Lee Elder crossed the Masters barrier with grace in the face of racism
As Lee Elder walked to the first tee at the Augusta National Golf Club on April 10, 1975, he was pissed off.
They weren’t because he was making his debut in The Masters, the legendary tournament that has a unique place in the sport. And like the other 75 men who took the start that day, he intended to win, which perhaps played a small role.
As he neared the first hole, Elder silently hoped that his opening shot was straight and that he didn’t hit anyone in the gallery. He prayed that no one in the gallery was one of the authors of the hate letters he had received, not one of the people who called him to threaten him: “
But he played well that day. And his first shot came in the middle of the fairway.
Elder passed away on Sunday at the age of 87, rightly hailed as a trailblazer for breaking the last great color barrier in American sport. He had received a wonderful standing ovation earlier this year when the Masters finally invited him to be an honorary starter, recognizing the contributions he had made to golf in general and the tournament in particular.
Elder couldn’t physically drive a balloon, instead he had to use his driver to help him get up and recognize the crowd.
He got his flowers while he was still with us and could enjoy them, and we had one last public chance to pay tribute to the man who endured so much just to play a game.
It seems to happen so rarely for black men, or at least that’s what it feels like. We are inundated with examples of black men who were not allowed to live to old age and enjoy the fruits of a well-led life, let them be as simple as lessons and wisdom. or more tangible like children and grandchildren or retreating world journeys.
Black men deserve to grow old. It’s such a simple statement but one that hits so hard for many of us, as we see talented visionaries like Chadwick Boseman or Virgil Abloh die of cancer, or Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd cast down by hate, or rappers Nipsey Hussle and Young Dolph, killed in their own communities. These deaths are unrelated, but for black people fighting for more and better, it’s just more open wounds even as we deal with others who never seem to heal.
Elder has had a long, full, and impactful life – despite a childhood that may have indicated he would be heading down a much different path. Born in Dallas, Texas during the Great Depression, one of 10 children of Charles and Almeta Elder, his father was killed in World War II and his mother died a few months later, leaving Lee orphaned at just 9 years. He eventually moved to Los Angeles with an aunt, where he started out as a caddy and took up his first clubs, but dropped out of high school after two years.
Back then, he wasn’t just making money carrying bags; Elder also teamed up with avid gamer and golfer Titanic Thompson, for whom he was a caddy and driver, to earn some cash. Thompson would take bets that he and his driver could beat the top two players on the course, and when they did, they would make a handsome profit.
It was Ted Rhodes, himself a pioneer as the first black man to play at the US Open and golf coach of boxing champion Joe Louis, who first recognized Elder’s natural talent and honed him. .
Talk about an unorthodox origin story in a sport where kids typically get their first clubs in kindergarten and learn to play on exclusive and expensive tracks.
After a stint in the military, Elder joined the United Golf Association, the circuit of black players since at the time, the statutes of the PGA still explicitly stipulated that it was reserved for Caucasians. The purses were small, but Elder was dominant in the early 1960s, winning 18 of 22 tournaments in a single streak.
Although the PGA abandoned its white-only clause in 1961, Elder did not join the tour until 1967. The delay was largely due to the fact that he wanted to pay the $ 10 entry fee himself. $ 000; he said that a few white people had offered to provide the money, but he did not see the need to give his winnings to someone else. So he saved up.
It didn’t take long for Elder to be successful. In 1968, he found himself in a sudden death playoff with Jack Nicklaus to win the American Golf Classic in Ohio. Although the gallery drew the most popular Nicklaus, Elder took him to the extra fifth hole before losing.
Elder not only persevered on the Tour, he excelled. He won four tournaments and totaled $ 1 million in prize money, which is no small feat considering that in the mid-1970s the average payout for winning an event on the Tour was around $ 40,000. .
And he did so despite hearing racial epithets from people lining the fairways and greens. Although he received late night phone calls to his hotel room, threatening violence and death. Although his golf ball has mysteriously vanished from the fairway on occasion, including when a fan has been caught fleeing under the ropes, pick up Elder’s ball and throw it in the trees. Despite the hotels in the South who canceled his confirmed reservations upon arrival. Despite the refusal of restaurants. Despite some of the same country clubs he played telling her he couldn’t use the locker rooms and had to change clothes in his car.
One of these clubs was the Pensacola (Florida) Country Club. In 1974, Elder won the Monsanto Open at the same club and secured his place in the 1975 Masters.
The hatred directed at Elder before the Masters was so intense that Elder rented two houses that week, one under a pseudonym, and stayed in both. When the town’s restaurants turned him away, the town’s historically black college, Paine College, opened its doors to him and welcomed Elder and his family.
Elder missed the cup in ’75 but he inspired countless people. As he came off the 18th green after his first lap, Augusta National’s black staff lined the fairways, applauding him. Later that same year in California, a baby was born to a black father and a Thai mother, a golf prodigy who followed in Elder’s footsteps to play in the Masters, but took a big step forward. and won in 1997: Tiger Woods.
Elder was there that Sunday when Woods hailed his dominant victory, after which Woods credited Elder for breaking the barrier.
In April, while he was honored by the Masters as the first black man to be an honorary starter, Elder also received an honorary doctorate from Paine College. Additionally, Augusta National announced that it will fund the start-up of a women’s golf team in Paine as well as annual scholarships for a member of the men’s and women’s team.
Elder’s pardon was recognized after enduring relentless bigotry in the pursuit of what remains one of the most cohesive professional sports in the country. (There was only one player on the pitch at the 2021 Masters of black descent, Cameron Champ.) A life fully celebrated.
His courage will not and should not be forgotten.