AFP
Wire Service
3 minute read
30 Nov 2021
10:46 am

Black golf pioneer Lee Elder remembered as ‘a good man and hero’

AFP

"Lee was a good player, but most important, a good man who was very well respected by countless people."

Honorary starter Lee Elder (left) waves to the patrons as he is introduced alongside Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus at the Masters in April. Elder died Monday at the age of 87. Picture: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

Trailblazing golfer Lee Elder, the first black player to qualify for the Masters, has died, the PGA Tour announced on Monday. He was 87.

Elder, who battled racism throughout his career, made history when he earned a place in the 1975 Masters.

The racial barrier-breaking golfer, who was chosen as the ceremonial starter for this year’s Masters, was one of the first black professionals to play on the tour after the PGA lifted its ban on non-white players in 1961.

He qualified for the PGA Tour for the first time in 1968, and won his first tournament in 1974 at the Monsanto Open in Florida — ensuring him a place in the Masters the following year.

“In 1975, the strongest memory as I recall was how nervous I was going to the first tee,” Elder recalled earlier this year.

“I had a wonderful round that day. Every tee and every green I walked on I got tremendous ovations. Having something like that helped settle you down. I was able to stick with business.”

Elder posted a 74 and a 78 in his historic Masters appearance, missing the cut.

However his road to the tournament had been turbulent, with Elder receiving death threats warning him not to play in Georgia.

“It was frightening. You try to eliminate the possibility of anything happening,” Elder said in an interview with CNN, revealing that the hostile reaction to his qualification left him mulling whether or not to play Augusta.

“I did consider not going. It was on my mind and I think the reason why I had thought about it was because it had been so difficult qualifying for the Masters.”

Eventually Elder said he decided to play because “it was something that I had wanted ever since I came on the Tour”.

“I think the reason why there had been so much talk about no black man playing at Augusta and after all that, I wasn’t going to qualify and not go.”

‘Lost a hero’

However Elder took precautions during the tournament, even renting two houses during the week of the event to keep his whereabouts a secret. 

“The logic behind that was the fact we did not want the people to know where I was staying,” he said.

Elder, who won four tournaments on the PGA Tour, would eventually go on to play in the Masters five times, with his best finish coming in 1979 when he tied for 17th.

Elder started in golf working as a caddie, playing his first full 18 holes as a 16-year-old with scavenged golf balls and wooden-shafted clubs.

After qualifying for the 1968 PGA Tour, Elder rose to prominence after going toe-to-toe with Jack Nicklaus in a nationally televised five-hole playoff in the American Golf Classic.

Nicklaus led the tributes to Elder on Monday, describing him as a “good player and a good man”.

“Lee Elder was a pioneer, and in so many ways,” Nicklaus told the PGATour.com website. 

“Yes, he was the first black player to compete in the Masters Tournament, but that simply underlined the hard work Lee put in to further the cause of everyone who has a dream to play on the PGA TOUR and perhaps thinks there were too many barriers before them.

“Lee was a good player, but most important, a good man who was very well respected by countless people. The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder.”

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan meanwhile paid tribute to Elder’s persistence in forging a professional career.

“It’s remarkable to look back on Lee’s life and career and realise the hardships he endured and the sacrifices he made to reach golf’s highest level,” Monahan said.

“To have the success he had, while paving the way for others to dream big and achieve, is a testament to the type of man he was and how much talent he possessed.”