First Black golfer to play at the Masters, Lee Elder, dies at 87
Augusta’s race barrier was broken in 1975 when Lee Elder became the first Black golfer to play at the famous golf competition, the Masters. Elders died last week at the age of 87. The PGA Tour confirmed Elders passing on Monday.
The 1960s and 70s were a harsh and volatile period for race relations in the U.S., but that did not stop Elder from breaking into the game. Elder became one of golf’s most recognizable faces, but that came with a price. Similar to the treatment Hammering Hank Aaron recalled during his days in Major League baseball, Elder received intimidation and threats. As he battled to win the first of his four PGA Tour titles and in response to threats he had received during the week, Elder was escorted back to the clubhouse by police after beating England’s Peter Oosterhuis in the playoff. At another tournament, he was refused entry to the clubhouse and was forced to change his clothes in the parking lot. On another occasion, a spectator hurled his ball into a hedge.
Leading up to his breakthrough Masters appearance, Elder was warned not to travel to Georgia — it was made plain to him what would happen if he did. While the other players in the Masters spent their time formulating their game strategy to help them win the tournament, Elder was worried about his safety and staying out of harm’s way. To ensure that no one knew where he stayed, Elder rented two houses during the Masters week.
Elder shared with CNN in 2015 that making his Masters debut in Augusta, Georgia, was a “very nerve-racking” experience. After he qualified for the Masters, courtesy of a tournament victory in Pensacola, Florida, Elder considered whether accepting the invitation to the Masters was the right thing to do. After a week, he made up his mind saying, “I knew it was something I had wanted ever since I came on to the Tour.” Elder said, “I think the reason why was there had been so much talk about no Black man playing at Augusta, and after all that, I wasn’t going to qualify and not go.”
“I was shaking so badly, I did not know if I was even going to be able to tee up the ball,” he said.
“It was frightening. You try to eliminate the possibility of anything happening. How I got through it I do not know, just with the help of the Almighty I got there and was able to put my ball on the tee.”
Though he went on to miss the cut, Elder would return five times, tying for 19th place in 1977 and 17th in 1979. He would go on to become the first Black man to represent the United States Ryder Cup team when he played in the 17-11 win over Europe in 1979.
As well as his barrier-breaking appearance, Elder was honored by the Masters in 2020 with the announcement of scholarships at local colleges in his name. The Lee Elder Scholarships were established at Paine College, a Historically Black College and University located in Augusta. Two scholarships are awarded annually to a student athlete who competes on the men’s and women’s golf team.
Elder was also honored at the 2021 Masters, joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as an honorary starter in the ceremonial first tee shot to begin the tournament.
During his career, Elder was committed to giving back to the community and speaking out against racism. In 1974, Elder set up the Lee Elder Scholarship Fund to offer monetary aid to low-income young men and women seeking money for college. In 1986 he protested to the PGA governors for allowing four American golfers to play in a tournament in Sun City during apartheid in South Africa. Elder spoke out in 1990 against country clubs that still excluded Black golfers from membership. Elder promoted Summer Youth Golf Development Programs, raised money for the United Negro College Fund, and served on the advisory board of Goodwill Industries.