Lee Elder lived a full, graceful life that too few Black men get to

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

As Lee Elder walked to the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club on April 10, 1975, he was racked with nerves.

They weren't because he was debuting in The Masters, the storied tournament that inhabits a unique place in the sport. And like the other 75 men teeing off that day, he had designs on winning, so that may have played a small role. 

As he approached the first hole, Elder silently hoped his opening drive was straight and didn't hit anyone in the gallery. He prayed no one in the gallery was one of the writers of the hateful letters he'd received, not one of the people who'd called him to threaten, "n****r you'll never tee it up at Augusta."

But he did tee his ball on that day. And his first shot went down the middle of the fairway. 

Elder died Sunday at age 87, rightfully hailed as a pioneer for breaking the last major color barrier in American sports. He'd gotten a wonderful ovation earlier this year when at long last The Masters invited him back to be an honorary starter, recognizing the contributions he made to golf in general and specifically the tournament.

Elder couldn't physically drive a ball, instead having to use his driver to help him stand and recognize the crowd.

He got his flowers while he was still with us and could appreciate them, and we got one last public chance to acknowledge the man who endured so much just to play a game. 

It seems to happen so infrequently for Black men, or at least that's how it feels. We are inundated with examples of Black men who were not allowed to simply live to old age and enjoy the fruits of a life well-lived, whether they be as simple as lessons and wisdom or more tangible like children and grandchildren or traveling the world in retirement.

Black men deserve to grow old. It's such a simple statement but hits so hard for many of us, as we see talented visionaries like Chadwick Boseman or Virgil Abloh die of cancer, or Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd cut down by hatred, or rappers Nipsey Hussle and Young Dolph, killed in their own communities. Those deaths aren't related, but for Black people fighting for more and better, they are just more wounds opened even as we deal with others that never seem to heal.

Lee Elder finally got his flowers at Augusta National last spring, 46 years after breaking the color barrier there. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Lee Elder finally got his flowers at Augusta National last spring, 46 years after breaking the color barrier there. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Elder got to live a long, full, impactful life despite a childhood that may have indicated he'd be headed for a far different path. Born in Dallas during the Great Depression, one of Charles and Almeta Elder's 10 children, his father was killed in World War II and his mother died a few months later, leaving Lee an orphan at 9 years old. He eventually moved to Los Angeles with an aunt, which is where he began to caddy and picked up his first clubs, but dropped out of high school after two years.

Back then, he didn't just make money carrying bags; Elder also teamed with gambler and avid golfer Titanic Thompson, for whom he caddied and chauffeured, to earn money. Thompson would take bets on whether he and his chauffeur could beat the two best players on the course, and when they did, they'd make a nice profit. 

Ted Rhodes, himself a pioneer as the first Black man to play in the U.S. Open and the golf coach for boxing champion Joe Louis, first recognized Elder's natural talent and honed it.

Talk about an unorthodox origin story in a sport where kids are usually handed their first clubs in kindergarten and learn to play on exclusive, expensive tracks.

After a stint in the Army, Elder joined the United Golf Association, the circuit for Black players since at the time the PGA's bylaws still explicitly stated it was for only Caucasians. The purses were small, but Elder dominated in the early 1960s, winning 18 of 22 tournaments during one stretch. 

Though the PGA dropped its whites-only clause in 1961, Elder didn't join the tour until 1967. The delay was in large part because he wanted to put up the $10,000 entry fee himself; he said a few white people had offered to provide the money, but he couldn't see having to give any of his winnings to someone else. So he saved up.

It didn't take Elder long to have success. In 1968 he found himself in a sudden-death playoff with Jack Nicklaus to win the American Golf Classic in Ohio. Despite the gallery pulling for the more popular Nicklaus, Elder took him to the fifth extra hole before losing. 

Elder didn't just persevere on the Tour, he excelled. He won four tournaments and totaled $1 million in winnings, no small feat given that in the mid-1970s the average payout for winning an event on the Tour was around $40,000. 

And he did that despite hearing racial epithets from people lining the fairways and greens. Despite getting late-night phone calls to his hotel room threatening violence and death. Despite his golf ball mysteriously going missing from the fairway on occasion, including when a fan was caught running from under the ropes, picking up Elder's ball and hurling it into the trees. Despite hotels in the South canceling his confirmed bookings when he arrived. Despite being turned away at restaurants. Despite some of the same country clubs he was playing at telling him he couldn't use the locker room and having to change clothes in his car

One of those clubs was the Pensacola (Fla.) Country Club. In 1974, Elder won the Monsanto Open at the same club and earned his spot in the 1975 Masters. 

The hate directed toward Elder before that Masters was so intense Elder would rent two homes that week, one under a pseudonym, and stayed in both. When eateries in the town turned him away, the historically Black college in town, Paine College, opened its doors to him and hosted Elder and his family.

Elder missed the cut in '75 but he inspired untold people. As he walked off the 18th green after his first round, the Black staff of Augusta National lined the walkways, applauding him. Later that same year in California, a baby was born to a Black father and Thai mother, a golfing prodigy who followed in Elder's footsteps to play in The Masters, but took it one huge step forward and won in 1997: Tiger Woods.

Elder was there that Sunday when Woods put a bow on his dominating win, after which Woods credited Elder for breaking the barrier.

This April, as he was honored by the Masters as the first Black man to be an honorary starter, Elder was also recognized with an honorary doctorate by Paine College. Additionally, Augusta National announced it would fund the start of a women's golf team at Paine as well as annual scholarships for one member of the men's and women's team.

Elder's grace was recognized after he endured unrelenting bigotry in pursuit of playing what remains one of the country's most homogenous professional sports. (There was just one player in the 2021 Masters field with Black ancestry, Cameron Champ.) A life lived in full celebrated.

His courage will not and should not be forgotten.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting