Lee Elder, first black golfer to play Masters, dies at the age of 87

by | Dec 5, 2021 | Golf Shoes

Pioneer Lee Elder, who became the first black golfer to break the color line in the Masters in 1975, died on Sunday evening at the age of 87. His death was announced on the PGA Tour and first reported on African American Golfer’s Digest.

Elder, who lived in a senior community in Escondido, was honored at Augusta National in April when he and Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player competed at the tea box in the tournament’s ceremonial first drives. Although he couldn’t keep up with the nine green jackets from these golf legends – his best result at the Masters was a tie in 1979 – Elder earned the loudest applause. He hoped to get his own shot, but instead recognized the gallery from his golf cart.

“It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had or been a part of for me and my family,” Elder said after the ceremony, which was attended by dozens of black club professionals from around the country. “It is surely something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

Elder made 448 starts on the PGA Tour with four wins, including the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida, which earned him an invitation to the Masters. During that tournament in Florida, he received death threats and was escorted by armed security as he walked the fairways.

“When I won in Pensacola, they got calls that if I won the tournament I would never get out of there alive,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March. “So when I putted to win and I went to my friends Jim Vickers and Harry Toscano, they had beer in hand for me. Jack Tuthill, who was the tour guide at the time, grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, you can’t go out there.’ I said, ‘Why can’t I?’ He said I should get in the car so they could drive me back to the clubhouse. In the car he told me about the threats.

“The ceremony took place in the clubhouse. We couldn’t do it outside. That was the decision of the people there. I was ready to get my trophy and check and get out of there. “

The humiliations Elder and other black golfers endured were constant, including the fact that Pensacola Course once denied him entry to the clubhouse and forced him to use the parking lot to put on his golf shoes.

“I think several players should have been at the Masters before me,” Elder said. “You go back and look at Pete Brown, who won the 1965 Waco Turner Open. He wasn’t invited. In 1967 Charlie Sifford won the Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open. He was not invited. “

Sifford would win the LA Open in 1969. Brown won the Andy Williams San Diego Open in 1970. Still no invitations. Therefore, it was important to Elder to receive their blessings when he finally received an invitation from Master.

Fearing for his safety, he rented two houses in Augusta during his first Masters so that people would not know exactly where he lived. In the week leading up to the tournament, he and his friends who had accompanied him on the trip from Washington were denied service at a local facility because of their race.

When Dr. When Julius Scott, then president of Paine College in Augusta, heard about this, he told Elder and friends that the school’s cooks would prepare their meals for the remainder of the week.

Lee Elder waves as he arrives for the ceremonial tees prior to the first round of the Masters golf tournament on April 8, 2021 in Augusta, Georgia.

(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

“He took us under his wing,” remembers Elder, who did not attend traditional black college but felt a deep connection with him.

Last year Augusta National donated two Paine Scholarships on Elder’s behalf and covered all of the university’s golf programs for men and young women.

“We hope this is a time to celebrate,” said Augusta Chairman Fred Ridley, “and a time that will be a legacy, create a legacy not just for Lee but for us that will last forever . “

Robert Lee Elder was born in Dallas on July 14, 1934, and taught himself to play golf by sneaking into all-white golf courses after hours as a teenager. He did not play his first official round until he was 16 years old. He played and rushed and continued to improve when he was drafted into the Army in 1959, playing frequent rounds with his commanding officer at Fort Lewis, Washington state.

After his discharge from the military in 1961, he joined the All-Black United Golf Assn. Toured and started his professional career.

In 1963, he and a quarter of a million others attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Elder and a friend went to North Carolina for three days before hitchhiking the rest of the way to gather near the Lincoln Memorial to hear Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream.” to listen.

“It was fun in the beginning because you are afraid and excited about what’s going to happen,” Elder recalled. “How close do I get when I get there? How close will we be to him?

Lee Elder poses for a picture at the Masters golf tournament on Monday, November 9, 2020 in Augusta, Georgia.

Lee Elder at the Masters 2020.

(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

“Not very close. We were at the far end. Anyone who had walked from shorter distances certainly had the best vantage points. We just stayed back and listened to each other. The microphone was loud enough for us to hear.

“I felt like I was helping by getting involved and trying to do my best to help in any way I could. I felt that in March to show how much what happened is really important to me. “