Sports

Lee Elder, US Masters pioneer, a reminder of sport’s ability to effect change


When he was 18, he played golf against the great black heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who loved his golf, and he met the man who had taught Louis how to play, Ted Rhodes, himself a great black golfer, who encouraged him to pursue the game, and taught him a few more tricks of the trade.

But take his skills higher, to compete in the big tournaments?

Out of the question at the time. And, if you can believe it, it was specifically written in the PGA constitution that it was only “members of the Caucasian race,” who could play professional golf. As to the Masters at Augusta, that might as well have been on another planet, for all the chance he had to play in that.

After all, as reported by CNN, the founding president of the Augusta National Golf Club was on record as saying: “As long as I am president, all the golfers will be white people, and all the caddies will be black.”

But slowly things began to change, at first only nominally.

In 1961, the PGA deleted the clause saying it was only for white people.

It was around that time that Elder started playing golf on the black circuit, called the United Golfers Association, where, as The New York Times reports, “In one stretch of 22 consecutive tournaments, he won 18.”

Lee Elder hits a drive during the practice round at the Masters in 1975.

Lee Elder hits a drive during the practice round at the Masters in 1975.Credit:Getty

By 1968 Elder made his way onto the PGA Tour where bitter racism was a part of his daily life, as with other black golfers. When playing at Pensacola Country Club in Florida that year he had to get changed in the car park because they wouldn’t allow anyone with his skin in the clubhouse. Still, he persisted and that very year went toe to toe, blow for blow with Jack Nicklaus himself at the American Golf Classic in Akron, Ohio, finally losing in sudden death.

The real breakthrough, however, came when, after winning the 1974 Monsanto Open at … Pensacola Country Club in Florida – take that, you racist bastards! – Augusta officials had no choice but to very reluctantly invite him to the 1975 Masters, as the winner of a PGA tournament.

The reaction to his invitation was severe and he took the death threats he received so seriously that, come the tournament itself, he rented two houses near Augusta so that, if an attack did come he was a 50 per cent chance of surviving. Under the circumstances it is not surprising he did not play his best golf and approaching the 18th fairway on the second day knew he wouldn’t make the cut.

But look now. For here they come, lining his walk up that fairway to the 18th green, and now all around it. It is the black staff of Augusta come out to applaud him. They ignore the white stares and glares and clap one of their own who has come this far.

“As I walked toward the green,” Lee told Golf Digest two years ago, “I couldn’t hold back the tears. Of all the acknowledgments of what I had accomplished by getting there, this one meant the most.”

He played the Masters six more times, with mixed success, before retiring, but the path he forged was starting to fill. And in 1997, when a young black man by the name of Tiger Woods tore the course up to win by 12 strokes, Lee was there.

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“Lee Elder came down, that meant a lot to me,” Woods said after his victory. “He was the first. He was the one I looked up to. Charlie Sifford, all of them. Because of them, I was able to play here. I was able to play on the PGA Tour. When I turned pro at 20, I was able to live my dream because of those guys.”

For all that, it was not until this year, after all the Black Lives Matter protests raised awareness of just how appalling racism in America still is, that Augusta invited Lee back to have the honour of being one of the ceremonial starters for the Masters, with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, hitting the ceremonial first shots before the start of the actual tournament. No matter that by that time, 87 years old, Lee was too old and ill to do anything other than wave an arm.

The mob gave him a standing ovation, at last recognising his legacy was greater than any mere Masters victory.

It was, he said, “one of the most emotional experiences I have ever been involved in” and “something I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

As it happened, he only had a little over six months of that life left to live. But good on you, Lee Elder. You were emblematic of sport’s fabulous ability to help achieve change.



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