Lee Elder, a pioneer who helped break down racial barriers by becoming the first Black golfer to play in the Masters, helping to pave the way for Tiger Woods and others was pronounced dead Sunday after struggling with poor health and wearing an oxygen tube to help him breathe.
"Lee was a good player, but most importantly, a good man who was very well respected by countless people, '' Jack Nicklaus wrote on his Twitter. “ The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder.” Elder was a native Texan who worked on his game during segregated times while also caddying, making history in 1975 at the Augusta National which had been an all-white tournament until he received an invitation after winning the Monsanto Open the previous year.
He would come up short at his first Masters but solidified himself as a revolutionary figure in a sport that had been renowned as not being racially tolerable. He helped lay the foundation for Woods, who is considered by many the greatest golfer ever, who would become the first black golfer to capture the green jacket, launching one of the greatest careers in golf history.
This past April, in the aftermath of social justice protests that roiled the nation, the Masters honored Elder by having him join Nicklaus and Gary Player for the ceremonial opening tee shots. Elder was in poor health and unable to take a swing, but he held up his driver proudly at the first tee, moved by the moment."For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in," he said.
Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters, called Elder "a true pioneer in the game of golf." He also stated "We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Lee Elder, Lee was an inspiration to so many young men and women of color not only through his play, but also through his commitment to education and community. Lee will always be a part of the history of the Masters Tournament. His presence will be sorely missed, but his legacy will continue to be celebrated."
Elder got into golf as a caddie, since that was the only way Black people had to be permitted onto the course at the time. He would polish his game during his time in the Army and after he was discharged he would join the United Golf Association Tour for Black players in the early 1960s. He would develop into one of UGA’s best players, but made minimal money which made it tough to earn a living.
At the age of 33 Elder was able to afford PGA qualifying school, where he earned his first tour card for the 1968 season. His rookie year he suffered a memorable loss to Niklaus on the fifth hole of a sudden-death playoff at the American Golf Classic. But that loss wouldn’t define Elder, in fact it was just a taste of what was to come as he would go on to capture four PGA Tour victories and eight more wins on the PGA Tour Champions for 50-and-over players. He played in all four major championships, tying for 11th at both the 1974 PGA Championship and the 1979 U.S. Open.
Elder was 40 when he made his Masters debut with so many of his prime years confiscated by the scourge of racism. Last year, before the pandemic-delayed Masters was played in November for the first time, the Augusta National recognized Elder's enormous contributions by setting up two scholarships in honor of his name at Paine College, a historically Black school in Augusta.
Elder also was friends with sports icons Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson and recalled a conversation he had with Aaron before he passed in January, stating, "We talked about several things ... our sports, our particular sport and the involvement that we felt that we could help other young Blacks that was coming up behind us, and I certainly hope that the things that I have done have inspired a lot of young Black players and they will continue on with it."
Elder was at Woods' historic win in Augusta in 1997 and was a true groundbreaking figure who forever changed the game of golf and those around him.