Trailblazer Lee Elder, first Black man to compete in Masters, dies at 87

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Lee Elder, a golf pioneer who in 1975 became the first Black man to compete at the Masters, has died at age 87. The PGA Tour tweeted the news on Monday morning. 

Elder, one of 10 children, was born in Texas in 1934 and raised by an aunt in Los Angeles after his parents died when he was 9. He told the BBC in 2015 that by the time he was 9, he knew golf was the only thing he wanted to do. He was too small to get a job as a caddy (though he tried), so he got a job retrieving stray golf balls until he was big enough to carry the bag. 

Elder learned from watching other players, and started making money playing golf as a teenager. Via the BBC:

Elder says he wasn't a natural at the sport and had to work hard to improve, but by the time he reached his late-teens he was hustling other golfers. 

"You would go to different golf courses and survey them and see how good a player they were. Then you'd get into the game - maybe lose one time so you could have them feel you were not a good player."

After being discharged from the Army in 1961, Elder joined the United Golf Association, a tour specifically for Black golfers who were excluded from the PGA Tour due to its whites-only rule. (The PGA Tour integrated in 1961.) He became a dominant force on the Tour, and finally earned his PGA Tour card in 1968. 

Elder faced significant racism on the main circuit, which he described to Sports Illustrated in 2008.

Man, the stories he could tell. There was the time in Pensacola, Fla., when Elder and the PGA Tour's other black players were forced to change their clothes in the parking lot because club members wouldn't allow them in the clubhouse. Or the time in Memphis when the harassment of Elder escalated from his ball mysteriously disappearing on the course to a late-night phone call that awakened Elder in his hotel room. "N—," the voice said, "you better not win this golf tournament." Elder played the rest of the tournament with a police escort.

Lee Elder1975 PGA TOUR - DecemberPGA TOUR Archive
Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first Black man to compete in the Masters, has died at age 87.

The 1975 Masters

Elder had the Masters on his mind since he qualified for the Tour. Playing there was his ultimate goal. 

“When I first qualified for the Tour, in 1967, I said I wanted to get that one thing that had not been accomplished out of the way. The Masters was the one tournament that hadn’t been integrated,” Elder told Golfweek in 2010.

Augusta National was one of the last racial barriers left in sports, and when Elder broke it in 1975 at age 40, the hatred he faced for simply showing up and playing was intense. He received tons of hate mail, with some letters threatening his life if he came to Augusta National. He had to rent two houses in town and secretly move between them to make his location harder to pin down. He told Sports Illustrated that he wasn't sure he'd make it to that day when he became the first Black man to compete at Augusta. 

But when he stepped out for the first time to hit the ball off the tee, he heard nothing but applause. That continued through his time at the Masters, which ended after Round 2 when he failed to make the cut. Elder went on to play in five Masters, and became the first Black man to represent the U.S. in the Ryder Cup in 1979.

In an interview with Golf Digest in 2000, Elder singled out the Black employees at Augusta National, remembering how they all stopped what they were doing to "admire" him as he walked through the clubhouse for the first time. 

"The Blacks at Augusta were wonderful," recalls Elder. "They bent over backward and did everything they could to show their appreciation. I'll never forget them."

Elder was honored at the Masters in April, joined by legends Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus on the first tee for the ceremony. 

"It's something I'll cherish the rest of my life," Elder said about the ceremony via the BBC. "It was one of the most emotional experiences I've ever been involved in. To earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream and to have it come true in 1975 remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life. To be invited back to the first tee one more time to join Jack and Gary means the world to me."

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