Lee Elder, who broke down racial barriers as the first Black golfer to play in the Masters and paved the way for Tiger Woods and others to follow, has died at the age of 87.
The PGA Tour announced Elder’s death, which was first reported Monday by Debert Cook of African American Golfers Digest. No cause was given, but the tour confirmed Elder's death with his family.
He had been in poor health and wore an oxygen tube beneath his nose when he appeared at the opening of the Masters in April. The tour said he died early Sunday in Escondido, California.
“Lee was a good player, but most important, a good man who was very well respected by countless people,” Jack Nicklaus wrote on his Twitter account. “The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder.”
A Texan who developed his game during segregated times while caddying and hustling for rounds, Elder made history in 1975 at Augusta National, which had held an all-white tournament until he received an invitation after winning the Monsanto Open the previous year.
Elder missed the cut at his first Masters but forever stamped himself as a groundbreaking figure in a sport that had never been known for racial tolerance.
Twenty-two years later, Woods became the first Black golfer to capture the green jacket, launching one of the greatest careers in golf history.
“Lee Elder was a pioneer, and in so many ways,” Nicklaus said. “Yes, he was the first black golfer to play 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.”
After his record 12-stroke victory in 1997 — the first of five Masters and 15 major titles that Woods has won — he reflected on the contributions of Black golfers such as Elder and Charlie Sifford.
“I thought about those guys coming up 18,” Woods said that evening. “I said a little prayer and said thanks. I wasn’t the first. I wasn’t the pioneer. I thank them. I think that’s why this victory is even more special. Lee, because of what he did, I was able to play here. Because of Charlie, I was able to play on the PGA Tour. I lived my dream because of those guys.”
This past April, in the wake 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's poor health prevented him from taking a swing, but he held up his driver proudly at the first tee, clearly 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,” Elder said.
“That morning, you could see the joy in Lee’s face,” Nicklaus said Monday. “Gary Player and I were honored to enjoy that moment with him.”
Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, called Elder “a true pioneer in the game of golf.”
“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,” Ridley said in a statement. "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 essentially was the only conduit Black people had to be permitted on the course. He was able to polish his game while serving in the Army and, after his discharge, joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black players in the early 1960s.
He developed into one of the UGA’s best players, winning 18 of 22 tournaments in one dominating stretch, but meager prize money made it tough to earn a living. Finally, at the age of 33, Elder was able to afford PGA qualifying school, where he earned his first tour card for the 1968 season.
The highlight of his rookie year was a memorable loss to Nicklaus on the fifth hole of a sudden-death playoff at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
Elder 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.
His best finish in six Masters appearances was a tie for 17th in 1979.
But Elder’s impact on the game went far beyond wins and losses, even if it took decades for his legacy to be fully appreciated.
“It always amazed me that presidents of the United States would be giving these different awards to athletes for their athletic prowess, and here was a man that ... was never given the awards that he actually duly deserved,” Player said.
Elder was 40 when he played in his first Masters, so many of his prime years were already stolen from him by the scourge of racism.
The PGA had a Caucasian-only rule until 1961 — 14 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. It took another 14 years before the Masters finally invited a Black player.
Last year, before the pandemic-delayed Masters was played in November for the first time, Augusta National formally recognized Elder’s enormous contributions by setting up two scholarships in his name at Paine College, a historically Black school in the east Georgia city.
The club also invited him to take part in the ceremonial tee shot with Nicklaus and Player at this year’s Masters.
“That is one thing that’s going to be significant to me, because 1975 was just an ordinary shot playing a golf tournament, even though it was the Masters,” Elder said at the time. “It’s not as significant as this shot will be come April 8, 2021. Because my heart and soul will be into this shot.”
Sadly, he was not able to take it. Elder watched from a chair at the first tee as Nicklaus and Player made their swings.
But Elder was deeply moved just to be in their company at such a hallowed spot.
Past Masters champions Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, both in their green jackets, made sure they were there for the ceremony. So was Cameron Champ, one of four players of Black heritage on the PGA Tour.
“It’s a great honor, and I cherish it very much, and I will always cherish it,” Elder said.
Added Nicklaus, “It was long overdue.”
Robert Lee Elder was born on July 14, 1934, in Dallas, Texas, the youngest of 10 children.
His father was killed in action during World War II when Elder was 9, and his mother died three months later. He was taken in by an aunt, Sarah, when he was 11 and lived for a time in Los Angeles before returning to Texas.
“My aunt was an incredible person,” Elder wrote in Golf Digest in 2019. “She gave me love and discipline, didn’t let me get too far out of line. Her resources were limited, but she carried herself with great dignity, communicated well with people and taught me right from wrong. I was on my own after about age 16, but she got me to a point where I could care for myself.”
That was about the time Elder played a full 18-hole round for the first time, stoking his love for golf even more.
He caddied, hustled games whenever he could and further developed his skills in the Army while serving under a golf-loving colonel who assigned him to a special unit where he could play regularly.
“It’s remarkable to look back on Lee’s life and career and realize the hardships he endured and the sacrifices he made to reach golf’s highest level,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay 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."
Elder knew Robinson, who died in 1972, and was close with Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats throughout his stellar baseball career, particularly as he approached what was Babe Ruth’s home run mark.
Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th homer on April 8, 1974.
Twelve days later, Elder won the Monsanto Open to qualify for the following year’s Masters.
Elder visited with Aaron shortly before the Hammer died in January.
“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,” Elder said. “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, who is survived by his wife, Sharon, was at Augusta National for Woods’ historic win in 1997. He wasn’t about to miss seeing a Black golfer win the tournament for the first time.
After all, it was Elder who paved the way.