In 1975, I was a middle school-aged kid in Washington, DC with a passion for all sports, even the ones that I didn’t play, including golf. In April of that year, the Pittsburgh Steelers had won their first Super Bowl and the Golden State Warriors were on their way to winning the NBA championship over my beloved Washington Bullets. A year before, the eyes of the world were focused on Georgia in April as a Black man, Henry Aaron, supplanted Babe Ruth as baseball’s home run king. In April 1975, Georgia was again squarely in the spotlight as the world watched one of the oldest and most onerous barriers in sports fall when Lee Elder became the first African American man to play in the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Elder had qualified by winning the Monsanto Open at the Pensacola Country Club in the 1974 PGA Tour season, earning an invite to play at one of the game’s most prestigious events held annually in the heart of the still largely segregated South.
Being a sports fanatic, I worked odd jobs so I could afford my own subscription to Sports Illustrated, which was usually laying in a stack with the rest of the day’s mail when I came home from school on Thursdays because no one else in the family was much interested in sports except my younger brother, who knew full well the dangers of thumbing through my issue of SI before I had had the opportunity to do so. But when I came home after basketball practice the Thursday evening of Masters week in 1975, the issue was nowhere to be found. I looked on and under every surface where I thought it might have gone but it was not to be found. I raced up the stairs to lodge a formal complaint with my mother, who controlled all and sundry affairs of the home including lost mail. As I rushed into my parents’ bedroom to file my grievance, I saw my mother and father, who to my knowledge had never set foot on a golf course, sitting on the edge of the bed reading the SI cover story about Lee Elder breaking the color barrier at Augusta. I knew then that this was much more than a golf event; it was a defining event for people of color in a country struggling to fulfill the high promises of equality embedded in its founding documents.
Lee Elder did not aspire to be a civil rights icon or a golfer for that matter. Born in Dallas, Texas as one of ten children, Elder did not contact the game until the age of 16 when he started working at a golf course to earn much needed income. Under the tutelage of legendary Black professional Ted Rhodes, Elder became polished enough to win 18 of 22 tournaments he played in 1961 on the UGA Tour, the segregated circuit that for many years was the only opportunity available for Black golfers. 1961 was also the year that Charlie Sifford broke the color barrier on the PGA Tour; by 1968 Elder had earned his Tour card and in 1974 his first career win at the Monsanto Open garnered him the elusive invite to the Masters (it should be noted that Charlie Sifford and Pete Brown had won events on the Tour but had been denied an invitation through technicalities that were a transparent yet effective ploy to keep the Masters segregated).
Elder was also the first Black man to play on a Ryder Cup team, making the squad in 1979. He was noted for his proficient all-around game as well as his poise in the face of withering treatment from spectators and some colleagues. Fans would hurl insults and purposely hide his ball during competitive rounds. In the runup to his 1975 Masters appearance, he received stacks of hate mail that included numerous death threats. Elder handled the turmoil with a grace and civility that became his trademark. “There was a sense of relief when I qualified [for the Masters],” Elder said in 2015. “And what I mean by relief is that they were so happy because this was the one thing that could be taken away from the tournament when people talked about it—that no Blacks had played in it. There were so many Blacks who wanted to be a part of the Masters, but they didn’t know how to go about it, because no Black had ever played there. I think that made a difference when the barrier fell.” The influence of Elder’s accomplishment eventually led to the Tour finally pulling events from club venues that had segregated membership.
Elder lived to see Tiger Woods dominate the venue that had at one time been forbidden to him and other golfers of color. He was a golf course operator for a time, briefly running the National Park Service courses in Washington, DC where I eventually got my start in the game of golf. I got to know Elder later in life; he was always ready to talk about our common connections to Washington, DC and share a joke or a story that would have us both laughing. It was good to see the industry recognize his courage, dignity, and excellence in his later years; in 2019, he was the recipient of the USGA's Bob Jones Award, the organization’s highest honor. And last year, he touched the hearts of golf fans everywhere when he joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary player as an honorary starter at the 2021 Masters. “The opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream, and to have it come true in 1975 remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life,” Elder said in a statement. “So, to be invited back to the first tee one more time to join Jack and Gary for next year’s Masters means the world to me.”
Lee Elder became a spokesman and advocate for inclusion in golf, but his actions and his demeanor were his most compelling argument. He embodied humility, strength, determination, and a relentless desire to do the right thing in the right way. Perhaps the best tribute we can all pay to Elder is to ensure that we hold ourselves to the high standards that he set for himself and ensure that no one must ever again be forced to overcome the barriers that he had to in order to participate in the game and business of golf.