Lee Elder, a pioneer in golf, died after becoming the first Black player to participate in the Masters Tournament at Augusta National in 1975.
Elder was a rural Dallas caddie who taught him how to play the game with one hand. Ted Rhodes, another black pioneer, helped Elder to adopt a traditional grip. He would then dominate the United Golf Association, the tour that was open to all Blacks during the era when the PGA had a Caucasian-only rule. Elder won four times and qualified for the 1979 U.S. Ryder Cup team.
“When I was first eligible for the Tour in 1967, I stated that I wanted to do one thing out of the way.
A group of politicians approached Augusta National two years ago to request Elder’s invitation, but they were denied.
Clifford Roberts, Augusta National founder, wrote that “We are surprised and flattered that 18 Congressmen were able to help us operate golf tournaments.” “… We feel certain that someone misinformed the distinguished legislators, as there is never been any player discrimination, subtle and otherwise.
Elder made his way to the Masters by holing an 18-foot birdie putt in the fourth playoff to defeat Peter Oosterhuis at the 1974 Monsanto Open at Pensacola Country Club, Florida. This was the same course where a few year earlier, he was refused entry to the clubhouse and had to change his shoes in the lot. It is important to recall that Elder was taken to the clubhouse to understand the world of the time.
Lee Elder at Augusta National Golf Course during 1975 Masters. Photo by The Augusta Chronicle
Elder stated, “I didn’t know why we were getting in the car. They said they had received calls saying that they would kill me if I won.” “We received so many calls like this.”
He bounced around between two rental houses during the 1975 Masters to be safe and spent late nights with friends playing cards and trying not to get confused by what it meant to break through the color barrier at Masters.
“My friend asked me: “Do you know how much you’ve done?” “My friend asked me, “Do you really know how much you’ve done?” I replied, “I feel like that.” I feel like I have made a difference in society. Elder recalled that they said, “No, my man. You’re breaking down the barrier that had existed for a long while.”
46 years ago, Elder wore green pants and a green shirt on a misty morning. When asked if he would like a rainsuit, he replied: “And ruin this pretty green?” Elder said.
Fred Ridley, Augusta National chairman, said that Lee Elder would inspire them and help make history again. “Lee, you are the one who has the honors.”
Elder used oxygen to aid his breathing and had a full set golf clubs at his disposal at first tee. He also used a driver to balance him, but was unable to hit a shot. He said “That feels good,” as he sat down to another round.