RIP Lee Elder (1934 – 2021)

A press photo of Lee Elder at The Masters in 1975.

RIP Lee Elder (1934 – 2021)

Lee Elder has died at the age of 87.

Elder’s historical impact is immeasurable. He joined the TOUR in 1968 and won his first event in 1974, opening the door to become the first African American to play The Masters in 1975.

Fearing for his safety amid death threats, Elder actually rented two houses in Augusta, moving between them for safety. He shot 74-78 to miss the cut, but would go on to play in five more. His best finish came in 1979, when he was in a tie for seventeenth.

In April 2021, Elder was included as one of three honorary starters at The Masters, along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

Player and Elder had a long and groundbreaking history. In 1971, Player invited Elder to participate in the South African PGA Championship in Johannesburg. In a country under strict apartheid rules, Elder and Player convinced the government to open the event to everyone, making it one of that country’s first integrated sporting events.

In his career, Elder won four times on the PGA TOUR and eight times on the PGA TOUR Champions.

Elder’s youth was remarkable. Orphaned at age nine, he dropped out of high school to work as a caddie. There, he developed his game to the point where he could support himself by hustling. At this time, he often teamed up with legendary golf hustler Titanic Thompson.

Catching the eye of Joe Louis, a golf fanatic, Elder was introduced to Ted Rhodes, another pioneering African American golfer. Rhodes became Elder’s instructor.

After his stint in the Army ended in 1961, Elder played in the United Golfers Association. The UGA was golf’s equipment of baseball’s “Negro Leagues.” At one point, Elder won 21 of 23 UGA events.

The PGA of America had eliminated its notorious “Caucasians only” rule in 1961, enabling Charlie Sifford to become the first African American to join the PGA TOUR. Elder finished ninth in Q School in 1967 and joined the PGA TOUR in 1968.

By the time Elder played in the Masters, he was forty-one years old, with arguably his best playing years having been stymied by racism. In that, his story was similar to that of many legendary Negro League baseball players — such as Satchel Paige — who, if they got a chance to play in the major leagues at all, did so past their prime.

Elder was not the first African American to play in a Major (that was John Shippen in 1896) or the first to play on the PGA TOUR (that was Charlie Sifford), nor was he the first to win a PGA TOUR event (Pete Brown holds that honor). However, Elder’s appearance at The Masters was one of those historical events whose impact carries on through the years.

For some more on the desegregation of golf, read the article at the link.

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