Lee Elder, first black golfer to compete in Masters, dies aged 87

ESCONDIDO, California – Lee Elder, who broke racial barriers as the first black golfer to play at the Masters and paved the way for Tiger Woods and others to follow, has died aged 87.

The PGA Tour announced Elder’s death, first reported on Monday by Debert Cook of the African-American Golfers Digest magazine. No cause was given, but the tour confirmed the death of Elder and his family.

He was in poor health and wore an oxygen tube underneath his nose when he appeared at the Masters opening ceremony in April. The tour said he died early on Sunday in Escondido, California.

“Lee is a good player, but most importantly, a good man who is respected by countless people,” Jack Nicklaus wrote on his Twitter account. “The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder.”

A Texan who developed his game in segregated intervals while jogging and jostling for rounds, Elder made history in 1975 at Augusta National, which hosted a tournament was all white until he received the invitation after winning the Monsanto Open the previous year.

Elder missed out on his first Masters but forever stamped himself as a breakthrough figure in a sport that has never been known for racial tolerance.

22 years later, Woods became the first black golfer to win the green jacket, kicking off one of the greatest careers in golf history.

Nicklaus said: “Lee Elder was a pioneer and in many ways. “Yes, he was the first black golfer to play at the Masters, but that simply underscores the hard work Lee has put into advancing the cause of all those who dream of playing in the PGA. Tour and probably thought there were too many hurdles before them.”

After a record 12-stroke win in 1997 – the first of five Masters and 15 major titles Woods had won – he reflected on the contributions of black golfers like Elder and Charlie Sifford. .

“I was thinking about those young 18-year-olds,” Woods said that evening. “I said a little prayer and said thank you. I’m not the first. I’m not a pioneer. I thank them. I think that’s why this win is all the more special. more. Lee, because of what he did, I was able to play here. Because of Charlie, I was able to play on the PGA Tour. I lived my dream because of those people.”

In April, amid nationwide social justice protests, the Masters honored Elder by having him join Nicklaus and Gary Player for tee shots. ceremonial opening.

Elder’s poor health prevented him from making the swing, but he held his handlebars proudly on the first tee, clearly emotional at this point.

“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” Elder said.

“That morning, you could see the joy on Lee’s face,” Nicklaus said Monday. “Gary Player and I are honored to enjoy that moment with him.”

Fred Ridley, president of Augusta National and the Masters, called Elder “a true pioneer in the game of golf.”

“Lee is an inspiration to so many young people and women of color not only through his play, but also through his commitment to education and the community,” Ridley said in a statement. “Lee will always be a part of the history of Masters tournaments. His presence will be greatly missed, but his legacy will continue to be honored.”

Elder entered golf as a caddy, as it was essentially the only sport in which Blacks were allowed on the course. He was able to polish his game while serving in the Army and after his discharge he joined the United Golf Association Tour for black players in the early 1960s.

He’s grown into one of the UGA’s best players, winning 18 of 22 tournaments in a dominating span, but the meager prize money makes it difficult to earn a living. Finally, at age 33, Elder was able to afford PGA-qualified school, where he earned his first travel card for the 1968 season.

The highlight of his rookie year was a memorable loss to Nicklaus on the fifth hole of the sudden death playoff at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.

Elder went on to claim four PGA Tour wins and eight more in the PGA Tour Champions for players 50 and older. He played at all four major championships, finishing 11th at both the 1974 PGA Championship and the 1979 US Open.

His best in six Masters appearances was a 17th draw in 1979.

But Elder’s impact on the game went far beyond winning and losing, even if it took decades for his legacy to be fully appreciated.

“I’ve always been amazed that the presidents of the United States would give these different awards to athletes for their athletic prowess, and here’s a man who… has never been given these awards. that he really deserves,” Player said.

Elder was 40 years old when he competed in the first Masters, many of his childhood years were stolen by the scourge of racism.

The PGA had a whites-only rule until 1961 – 14 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. It took another 14 years before the Masters finally invited a Black player.

Last year, ahead of the first pandemic postponement of the Masters in November, Augusta National officially recognized Elder’s great contributions by establishing two scholarships in his name at Paine College, one historic black school in the eastern city of Georgia.

The club also invited him to take part in a ceremonial tee with Nicklaus and Player at this year’s Masters.

“That’s something that’s going to be very important to me, because 1975 was just an ordinary fight in a golf tournament, even though it was the Masters,” Elder said at the time. “It’s not as important as this shot that will take place on April 8, 2021. Because my heart and soul will be in this shot.”

Sadly, he was unable to take it. Elder watches from a chair at the first tee as Nicklaus and Player perform their turns.

But Elder was deeply moved to be with them at such a sacred site.

Former Masters champions Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, both wearing green jackets, made sure they were present at the ceremony. So is Cameron Champ, one of four black players on the PGA Tour.

“It was a great honor, and I cherish it very much, and I will always cherish it,” Elder said.

Nicklaus added, “It’s long overdue.”

Robert Lee Elder was born on July 14, 1934 in Dallas, Texas, the youngest of 10 children.

His father was killed in World War II when Elder Brother was 9, and his mother died three months later. He was adopted by an aunt, Sarah, when he was 11 years old and lived for a time in Los Angeles before returning to Texas.

“My aunt is an incredible person,” Elder wrote in Golf Digest magazine in 2019. “She gave me love and discipline, didn’t let me go too far. Communicated well with people and taught me. right – wrong. I became independent after about 16 years old, but she helped me to be able to fend for myself.”

It was around the time Elder played a full 18-hole round for the first time, making him love golf even more.

He played ball, participated in games whenever he could and further developed his skills in the Army while serving under a golf-loving colonel who assigned him to a special unit. especially where he can play regularly.

“It is remarkable to look back on Lee’s life and career and realize the hardships he endured and the sacrifices he made to reach the highest level of golf.” , said Jay Monahan, PGA Tour Commissioner. “To have the success he has, and at the same time pave the way for others to dream big and achieve, is testament to the kind of person he is and how much talent he has. “

Elder knew Robinson, who died in 1972, and was close to Hank Aaron, who had endured racist threats throughout his stellar baseball career, especially as he approached the marker. Babe Ruth’s run home.

Aaron hit a record 715 homer on April 8, 1974.

Twelve days later, Elder won the Monsanto Open to qualify for next year’s Masters.

Elder visited Aaron shortly before Hammer’s death in January.

“We talked about a number of things…our sports, our particular sport and engagement that we felt we could help other young black people with. are behind us,” Elder said. “And I certainly hope that the things that I’ve done have inspired a lot of young Black players and they will continue with that.”

Elder, who is survived by his wife, Sharon, attended Augusta National for Woods’ historic victory in 1997. He didn’t miss seeing a black golfer win the tournament for the first time. Firstly.

After all, it was he who paved the way.

Copyright © 2021 by Associated Press. Copyright Registered. Lee Elder, first black golfer to compete in Masters, dies aged 87

Dais Johnston

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