Lee Elder, who broke the color barrier at the Masters, died Sunday. He was 87.
The news, which was first reported by African-American Golfer’s Digest and confirmed by the PGA Tour, comes less than a year after Elder served as a Masters honorary starter for the first time. Elder is survived by his wife, Sharon.
Elder won four times on the PGA Tour, but it was his fights against exclusivity that will be remembered far more than his play. He was a champion of racial justice and was a pioneer who shredded the ropes of segregation at Augusta National when he became the first Black golfer to participate in the Masters in 1975.
Born in Dallas July 14, 1934, Elder was orphaned 10 years later when his father was killed in World War II and his mother died soon after. He moved to Los Angeles and took odd jobs at local golf courses, where he met Joe Louis and Ted Rhodes, who took an interest in teaching Elder to improve his game.
By 1961, Elder joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black players. He dominated the circuit, winning 18 of 22 tournaments during one stretch.
Elder finally reached the PGA Tour in 1968 and lost a memorable playoff to Nicklaus at Firestone in his rookie season. As difficult as the fight to get to the Tour was, his real battle was just beginning. During a tournament in Memphis, Elder’s ball mysteriously disappeared during the round – another player, Terry Dill, said he saw a spectator pick up Elder’s ball and discard it; Elder was given a free drop – and he had death threats delivered to his hotel. At the 1968 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida, Elder and other Black players were forced to change clothes in the parking lot because club members would not allow non-whites in their clubhouse.
Fittingly, Elder won in Pensacola in 1974 to earn his historic invitation to the Masters. He knocked down one of sport’s tallest racial barriers at 11:15 a.m. on April 9, 1975, when he became the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters.
Elder said he received up to 100 death threats in the run-up to the Masters, but when tournament week arrived he heard cheers. “Every green I walked up on, the applause was just tremendous,” he said 40 years later. “I mean every one of them people shouted, ‘Go, Lee! Good luck, Lee!’”
He missed the cut that week but wasn’t through knocking down barriers. In 1979, he became the first Black golfer to qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He became a crusader for social and economic justice. He spoke out against country clubs that excluded African-Americans from joining, and created the Lee Elder Scholarship Fund, offering monetary aid to low-income men and women seeking money for college.
Elder joined PGA Tour Champions in 1984 and finished with nine wins, including six in his first 26 starts.
Less than nine months after Elder broke Augusta’s color barrier, a boy named Eldrick Tont Woods was born in Cypress, Calif. Twenty-one years later, Elder was in Augusta when Woods made history by winning the 1997 Masters.
“You would have thought I was winning the golf tournament,” Elder said. “To be there, to see what Tiger did, that meant the world to me.”
Last April at Augusta National, Elder stood alongside fellow honorary starters Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player prior to the playing of the 85th Masters. Just outside the ropes were several Black members of the PGA of America, all inspired by Elder, who watched as Masters chairman Fred Ridley gave Elder the ceremonial first-tee honors while adding that Elder will “make history once more, not with a drive, but with his presence, strength and character.”
“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” Elder said. “It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”