Lee Elder, so much more than a golf pioneer
When viewed through the prism of the Masters and golf history, Elder becomes perhaps the most important figure in the game, more significant than Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods
My favorite memory of Lee Elder is the time Hank Aaron loaned him a Jaguar XJ6 from his Atlanta car dealership to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his historic appearance in the 1975 Masters. Elder drove through the streets of Augusta, Georgia, with “LEE ELDER-MASTERS 1975” painted on the driver- and passenger-side doors.
“It was like a ticker-tape parade every day driving around down here,” Elder told me for a Sports Illustrated story in 2005. “People honked their horns and tried to stop me for autographs.”
He was disappointed that the tournament had not acknowledged his anniversary with a spot in the Par 3 Contest or a place as an honorary starter. Eight years earlier, Elder had been thrust back into the spotlight at the Masters when a 21-year-old Tiger Woods rocked the world by winning the 1997 tournament by 12 shots. Elder loved the attention that he received from Woods, who recognized him as a pioneer who had eased the way for him to pursue his dream of winning a green jacket.
Finally in 2021, Elder was made an honorary starter at the Masters, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. This was an honor typically given to a past champion. Forty years old when he played in the 1975 Masters and 34 when he joined the PGA Tour in 1968 after years of toiling on the all-Black United Golf Association circuit, Elder would never win a green jacket or any major championship, but to a game mired in racism, he was its savior and greatest champion.
It’s been convenient to simply consign Elder to a place in the pantheon of Black heroes to break color barriers in sports. Four months after playing in the 1975 Masters, his name was listed in an article called Black Firsts in Sports in the August edition of Ebony magazine. In the golf category, Elder’s name is there with John Shippen and Charlie Sifford, a few rows away from Jackie Robinson in baseball and Althea Gibson in tennis.
That same year Elder made the cover of Sports Illustrated, another first for a Black golfer. Yet the fact that Elder, whose death at age 87 was announced Monday, was the first African American to play the Masters is not the most important statement about his accomplishment. Over time that distinction becomes, without proper historical context, primarily material for a game of sports trivia. But when Elder is viewed through the prism of the Masters and golf history, he becomes perhaps the most important figure in the game, more significant than Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Woods.
For years, the Masters had represented continuity with an American South still holding on to the economic and social vestiges of slavery. At the tournament, the caddies were all Black and the players were all white. Born in 1934 in Jim Crow Texas — the same year as the first Masters — Elder fought intense racial discrimination to reach this mecca of golf. In his pursuit to qualify for the Masters, beginning in the late 1960s, he became a conduit of golf’s collision with the civil rights movement. By the mid-1960s, the Masters was facing scrutiny in the media for its all-white fields. “The Masters Tournament is as white as the Ku Klux Klan,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray.
Newspaper reporters at the Masters hounded Clifford Roberts, who was the chairman of the club and its chief decider.
“Why no Blacks?” asked a reporter in 1968.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Roberts answered. “We had that boy from Thailand last year and he was as Black as the ace of spades.”
Roberts, a New York investment banker, could be political and patronizing toward Black folks on the issue. “Blacks often furnish the greatest athletes in football, baseball, basketball, in the Olympics. Think how much it would help our TV rating if we had a Willie Mays in the Masters,” he said. “There is no doubt that when Blacks make the same efforts in golf as in other athletic fields, they’ll have a place here. But few are making a serious effort.”
The Masters, always the smallest and most select field of golf’s four majors, had different standards for qualifications. Usually the top 16 finishers from the previous year’s U.S. Open were exempt and the top 25 money winners. Only in 1972 did the tournament begin awarding an exemption for winning a PGA Tour event. The tournament could also issue exemptions to international players and top amateurs. Sifford argued that one way or another the tournament managed to keep the color lines drawn — Black caddies and white players. “To my mind the Masters was the worst redneck tournament in the country, run by people who openly discriminated against blacks,” Sifford wrote in his memoir, Just Let Me Play.
“I would go so far as to say that for a black man, the Masters golf tournament was and maybe still is a symbol for where he really stands in American society. Sure he might get some victories here or there and think that he’s finally making it in society, but that one door at the top will never be open to him. And when a door stands firmly closed against you, you really do question the value of what you’d achieved up to that point.”
Elder never questioned the value of his achievements, only the barriers that kept him out of the Masters. “The Masters has never wanted a Black player and they kept changing the rules to make it harder for Blacks,” he said at the time of the tournament. “Everything’s fine now only because I got them off the hook by winning.”
It’s hard to imagine the Masters and professional golf had Elder not earned his way into the tournament by winning the 1974 Pensacola Open/Monsanto Open. What President Abraham Lincoln was to the Civil War and what Martin Luther King Jr. was to the civil rights movement, Elder was to the game of golf, a monumental figure who became the conscience of the sport at a time when the game was experiencing its own reckoning with racism in America.
When Elder appeared on the first tee at Augusta National in April as an honorary starter, every player in the Masters field should have been there to thank him for his service to the game. It’s been easy for players to praise Woods for his massive influence on the growth of the game, but much harder to place Elder on the same mountain.
In 1975, Elder, who never published a memoir or autobiography in his lifetime, was contemplating the title of his autobiography. Lee Elder: Story of a Pioneer was considered, but he wasn’t sure that he liked it. Perhaps, a more appropriate title might have been Lee Elder: Savior of the Game.