On April 8, Lee Elder, encumbered by arthritis in his knees and a nasal cannula, slowly stood up from his chair at the first tee box at Augusta National Golf Club and received a standing ovation from the thousands of patrons in attendance. He could not swing his mighty driver one more time, but a wide, easy smile never left his face. Invited as an honorary starter beside his few remaining living peers, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, Elder may never have won the challenging Masters Tournament. Still, he had dealt a death blow to its notorious racist barrier.
Robert Lee Elder, who died on Nov. 28, was born on July 14, 1934, in Jim Crow-era Dallas, Texas, one of 10 children in the Elder family. It would have been a significant challenge for any child, but the Elder children suffered additional trauma with the loss of their father, Charles, in World War II and their mother, Almeta, just three months later. The children were divided among various relatives, and Lee was sent to Los Angeles to live with an aunt.
Elder was attracted to golf to make money, both in Texas and California, and frequently skipped school to caddie at local courses. Initially, it was about survival, not a career in golf, he told Golf Week in 2011. Over time, Elder learned the sport by observing players and would practice with a set of abandoned clubs during his few available down hours. Soon, the teenage Elder was hustling wealthy weekend players out of their money, and a chance pairing with then-former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis led him to become a protege of black golf pioneer Ted Rhodes, who was coaching Louis.
Rhodes helped Elder develop a sophisticated game. Following a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, Elder won 18 of 22 consecutive tournaments on the all-black United Golf Association Tour in 1961. The Professional Golfers Association Tour, under pressure, finally ended its whites-only restriction the same year. Still, Elder could not raise enough money to participate in its “qualifying school” tournament for the first time until 1967, finishing in the top 10 and winning a spot on the PGA Tour for 1968.
Elder quickly made his presence known on the PGA Tour, battling world champion Nicklaus in a five-hole sudden-death playoff in Nicklaus’s home state of Ohio. Despite some success, with fellow black professional Charlie Sifford winning events in 1967 and 1969, Elder and the small number of black professional golfers on the tour suffered numerous indignities and hardships, often being forced to dress outside the professionals’ locker room in Southern states and occasionally encountering illegal fan interference with their wayward shots. And none were invited to compete in the Masters at Augusta National, the Super Bowl of professional golf.
Again lagging well behind the culture, the PGA changed its rules in 1971. All players who had won tournaments during the previous year received invitations to play at the following Masters. Elder broke through by winning the Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida, in 1974, qualifying him for Augusta in 1975.
Elder’s inaugural Masters Tournament was a whirlwind of media frenzy and latent racial hatred. He was obligated to rent two houses so no one who had written him a threatening letter would know precisely where he was staying. Reporters constantly interrupted his practice rounds, and he never was able to achieve a level of comfort with the course, he told Golf Week. Elder missed the cut by four strokes but was heartened when the mostly black staff at Augusta National lined the 18th fairway that Friday (his final round that year) to show their respect. “Of all the acknowledgments of what I had accomplished by getting there, this one meant the most,” Elder told Golf Digest.
Elder had become the Jackie Robinson of golf for Southern black people by breaking the color barrier at Augusta National, said Republican political strategist David Watts. “My father made sure I watched and told me this was a life lesson: I could be an angry black man, or I could be Lee Elder.” Elder and his four PGA Tour wins would pave the path first for Calvin Peete, who won 12 tournaments. Then, for 82-time winner Tiger Woods, the first black golfer to win the Masters and generally considered the greatest professional golfer to play the sport.
Elder would return to the Masters four more times, making the cut in three and finishing in the top 20 in 1979. He was the first black American to play in the Ryder Cup, also in 1979, scoring a four-ball win with partner Andy Bean and helping lead Team USA to a win over Europe. He would find success on the Senior PGA (now Champions) Tour, winning 12 additional tournaments and leading a cadre of successful black golfers, including Peete, Jim Dent, and Jimmy Lee Thorpe.
In later life, Lee Elder created a foundation to provide college scholarships for the needy, raised money for the United Negro College Fund, and promoted golf development programs, first with his first wife, Rose Harper (a golf pioneer and luminary in her own right), and then with his second wife, Sharon.