Lee Elder, who was the first Black golfer to play at the Masters, died early Sunday morning at the age of 87.
No cause or details about his death were immediately available, but the PGA Tour said it confirmed Elder’s death with his family.
Although there were other professional African American golfers who came before him, Elder made history in 1975, breaking the sport’s race barriers when he competed at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia after winning the Monsanto Open, his first pro tournament.
That victory qualified him to play in the prestigious Masters tournament the following year. But even then, it was unclear whether the 40-year-old would be invited to actually play at the famous competition, which had yet to be integrated.
In a 1982 interview with NPR, Elder said that prior to qualifying, several lawmakers had written to the chairman of Augusta on his behalf “asking for a special invitation for me to compete.”
While he appreciated the gesture, Elder said he felt that would have been wrong and undermined his abilities and legitimate right to participate. Accepting such an invitation would have been tantamount to “coming in through the backdoor,” he said.
Ultimately, he was extended the same invitation as his peers. And, although he didn’t go far in the competition, he returned another five times throughout his career, tying for 11th in 1979 to match his best career finish in a major.
More from NPR on Lee Elder:
One of 10 children, Elder was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1934. He was taken in by an aunt and moved to Los Angeles after his parents died when he was 9. By the time he was about 16, he was on his own.
He became interested in golf after returning to Texas as a boy, he told NPR.
“I used to live near a golf course and I used to see the people hitting the balls … and it kind of fascinated me, so I decided I would start caddying,” he recalled.
But as he grew older, and dreamed of a professional golf career as a Black man, Elder realized he needed to get out of Texas.
“As a matter of fact, we could not even play in Texas at that time,” he said. “Prior to 1954, the golf course was still segregated, so we could not play on any of the public facilities.”
Read more and read all on Lee Elder and his golf career, when you CLICK HERE….from NPR.org….
One of ten children, Elder was born in Dallas, Texas, to Charles and Almeta Elder. He was nine years old when his father was killed in Germany during World War II, and his mother died three months later. At the age of 12, Elder found himself moving from one ghetto to another before being sent to Los Angeles, California, to live with his aunt. Elder frequently cut classes to work as a caddie, and after two years at Manual Arts High School he dropped out.
Elder met his first wife, Rose Harper, at a golf tournament in Washington, D.C. The two married in 1966. After getting married, Rose gave up her golfing career to become his manager. They later divorced.
Elder died on November 28, 2021, at the age of 87.
from Tom Murphy, with the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1993:
A MIST HAD BEEN FALLING since 8 o’clock on that Thursday morning in Augusta, Ga., and the spectators crowded around the first tee at the Masters were growing restless. Press reporters from as far away as England and Japan were on hand to record the moment that would become a part of golfing history.
A few minutes after 11 the crowd stirred as a man ambled down the path and through the restraining ropes. As if on celestial cue, the rain stopped and the sun came out. The man was wearing green slacks, green shirt and a sun visor. The visor was white, but the face it shielded was black.
On that morning of April 10, 1975, Lee Elder shattered a barrier that had stood for nearly half a century. He became the first black golfer to set foot on the hallowed grounds of the Augusta National golf course.
Two decades later, there is still a trace of awe and pride in Elder’s voice as he remembers how it was that day at the Masters.
“I was shaking so bad, I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to relax. But Gene Littler and I were paired together and I felt comfortable playing with him.”
Elder, his wife Rose, and a group of close friends had arrived in Augusta on Sunday from a tournament in Greensboro, N.C. He had not slept well through Wednesday night and was restless and edgy. A two-pack-a-day smoker, he had cut out cigarettes for a week in a futile effort to calm his frazzled nerves.
First-tee jitters are normal even in a routine tournament, but this was the Masters, and all eyes were riveted on Elder as he lashed his first drive down the middle of the fairway. His approach landed safely on the green and he two- putted for his par.
He was greeted with an ovation, and some of the tension left him as he moved off toward the sea of people surrounding the second tee.