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Golf pioneer Lee Elder, who broke the race barrier at the Masters, dies at 87

Lee Elder watches the flight of his ball as he tees off in the first round of play at the Masters in Augusta, Ga., on April 10, 1975. Elder broke racial barriers as the first Black golfer to play in the Masters and paved the way for Tiger Woods and others to follow.
Lee Elder watches the flight of his ball as he tees off in the first round of play at the Masters in Augusta, Ga., on April 10, 1975. Elder broke racial barriers as the first Black golfer to play in the Masters and paved the way for Tiger Woods and others to follow.

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.

"I don't want to go down in history just for this," Elder said, following his breakthrough appearance at the Masters. "I want to be remembered, if I'm remembered at all, because I was a good golfer."

Elder's early life was filled with strife

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."

Lee Elder (shown here playing at the Masters in 1975) turned pro in 1959, joining the United Golf Association, a tour specifically for African American golfers who were prohibited from the PGA Tour due to its "Caucasian only" clause.
Lou Krasky / AP
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Lee Elder (shown here playing at the Masters in 1975) turned pro in 1959, joining the United Golf Association, a tour specifically for African American golfers who were prohibited from the PGA Tour due to its "Caucasian only" clause.

Elder turned pro in 1959, joining the United Golf Association, a tour specifically for African American golfers who were prohibited from the PGA Tour due to its "Caucasian only" clause.

Nearly a decade later, Elder earned his PGA Tour card in his first attempt in 1968, and in that first full year he tied the legendary Jack Nicklaus for first place in the American Golf Classic, before losing in sudden death. He would go on to win four PGA Tour events and eight PGA Championship titles on the 50-and-older senior circuit.

Racism dogged Elder throughout his career

Over the years, Elder recounted the blatant and undisguised prejudice he faced throughout his career.

Leading up to his historic appearance at the Masters, Elder said he received up to 100 death threats.

"I was scared to death," he told an audience 37 years later.

In fact, he was so shaken that Elder moved between two different rented houses during that week in 1975, so that the bigots who had sent menacing letters and made vile phone calls to his home wouldn't be able to track him down.

Another time, less terrifying but nonetheless humiliating, he was forced to change in the parking lot of a Pensacola country club because Black players were not allowed in the locker room.

Other great professional African American players preceded him, including Charlie Sifford — the first African American golfer to earn a PGA Tour card — Howard Wheeler, Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes, who had tutored him to become a better player. They had truly suffered the brunt of the most brutal racism in the sport, he told NPR.

"But it still exists today," he said in 1982.

"Some of the areas we go in, it's pretty bad. Especially at the country clubs," he explained. "It's hard to go to a country club, especially where no Blacks have ever played even though there may be quite a number of Blacks in the community. They are not members of the country club and have not played on that particular golf course."

In locker rooms or the clubhouse, he added, "the stares are always there."

Longtime friends and peers react to news of his death

Elders was one of the three honorary starters — alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — in the ceremonial first shots to begin the 2021 Masters tournament earlier this year.

Although he was in poor health and walked onto the course wearing an oxygen tube, the 86-year old was deeply moved by the recognition.

Jack Nicklaus shakes hands with Lee Elder after hitting the ceremonial first tee during the first round of the Masters golf tournament on April 8 in Augusta, Ga.
Matt Slocum / AP
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Jack Nicklaus shakes hands with Lee Elder after hitting the ceremonial first tee during the first round of the Masters golf tournament on April 8 in Augusta, Ga.

"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 later said.

"Lee Elder was a pioneer in so many ways," Nicklaus wrote on Twitter. "Yes, he was the first black golfer to play in the Masters, 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 thinks there were too many barriers before them."

Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters, called Elder "a true pioneer in the game of golf."

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Lee Elder," Ridley said in a statement.

"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."

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