Lee Elder, much more than a golf pioneer – The Undefeated

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My favorite memory of Lee Elder is when Hank Aaron loaned him a Jaguar XJ6 from his Atlanta car dealership to celebrate the 30e anniversary of his historic appearance at the Masters 1975. Elder drove the streets of Augusta, Georgia with “LEE ELDER-MASTERS 1975” painted on the driver and passenger side doors.

“It was like an everyday ticker parade driving here,” Elder told me during a Illustrated sports story in 2005. “People honked their horns and tried to stop me for autographs.”

He was disappointed that the tournament did not recognize his birthday with a place in the Par 3 competition or a place as an honorary starter. Eight years earlier, Elder had been brought back to the Masters spotlight when a 21-year-old Tiger Woods rocked the world by winning the 1997 tournament by 12 strokes. Elder loved the attention he received from Woods, who recognized him as a trailblazer who paved the way for him to pursue his dream of winning a green jacket.

Finally in 2021, Elder was named honorary starter at the Masters, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. It was an honor usually given to a former champion. Forty years old when he played in the 1975 Masters and 34 when he joined the PGA Tour in 1968 after years of toil on the Black United Golf Association circuit, Elder would never win a green jacket or a major championship. , but in a match mired in racism, he was its savior and its greatest champion.

It has been handy to simply give Elder a place in the pantheon of black heroes to break down the color barriers in the sport. Four months after playing in the 1975 Masters, his name was listed in an article titled The first blacks in sport in the August issue of Ebony magazine. In the golf category, the name of Elder is there with John Shippen and Charlie Sifford, a few ranks from Jackie Robinson in baseball and Althea Gibson in tennis.

That same year, Elder was on the cover of Illustrated sports, another first for a black golfer. Yet the fact that Elder, whose death at 87 was announced on Monday, was the first African-American to play the Masters is not the most important statement about his accomplishment. Over time, this distinction becomes, without proper historical context, primarily material for a sporting trivia game. But when Elder is seen through the prism of the Masters and golf history, he becomes perhaps the most important figure in the game, more important than Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Woods.

For years, the Masters had represented continuity with an American South still clinging to the economic and social vestiges of slavery. At the tournament, the caddies were all black and the players were all white. Born in 1934 in Jim Crow, Texas – the same year as the first Masters – Elder fought intense racial discrimination to reach this golf mecca. In his quest to qualify for the Masters, starting in the late 1960s, he became an intermediary between golf and the civil rights movement. By the mid-1960s, the Masters was under intense media scrutiny for its all-white pitches. “The Masters Tournament is as white as the Ku Klux Klan,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray.

Masters reporters chased down Clifford Roberts, who was the club’s president and chief decision-maker.

“Why not black people? Asked a journalist in 1968.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Roberts replied. “We had this boy from Thailand last year and he was as black as the ace of spades.”

Roberts, a New York investment banker, could be political and condescending to black people on the matter. “Blacks often provide the greatest athletes in football, baseball, basketball, the Olympics. Think how much it would help our TV rating if we had a Willie Mays in the Masters, ”he said. “There is no doubt that when black people make the same efforts in golf as they do in other areas of sport, they will have their place here. But few make a serious effort.

The Masters, still the smallest and most select area of ​​the four golf majors, had different qualifying standards. Usually the top 16 from the previous year’s US Open were exempt and the top 25 winners. It wasn’t until 1972 that the tournament began granting an exemption for winning a PGA Tour event. The tournament could also grant exemptions to international players and top amateurs. Sifford argued that somehow the tournament had managed to keep the colored lines drawn – the black caddies and the white players. “In my opinion, the Masters was the worst redneck tournament in the country, hosted by people who openly discriminated against blacks,” Sifford wrote in his memoir, Let me play.

“I would go so far as to say that for a black man, the Masters golf tournament was and perhaps still is a symbol of his real standing in American society. Sure, he might get some victories here or there and think he’ll finally be successful in society, but that door to the top will never be open to him. And when a door is firmly closed against you, you really question the value of what you’ve accomplished so far. “

Elder never questioned the value of his accomplishments, only the barriers that kept him away from the Masters. “The Masters never wanted a black player and they kept changing the rules to make it more difficult for black,” he said at the time of the tournament. “It’s all right now only because I got them out of the woods by winning.”

It’s hard to imagine that the Masters and professional golf didn’t allow Elder to carve out a place in the tournament by winning the Pensacola Open / Monsanto Open in 1974. What President Abraham Lincoln was up to the Civil War and what Martin Luther King Jr. was to the civil rights movement, Elder was to the game of golf, a monumental figure who became the consciousness of the sport at a time when the game was booming. own account with racism in America.

When Elder appeared on the first tee at Augusta National in April as an honorary starter, all players in the Masters field should have been there to thank him for his service to the game. It was easy for players to congratulate Woods on his massive influence on the growth of the game, but much more difficult to place Elder on the same mountain.

In 1975, Elder, who never published a memoir or autobiography during his lifetime, was pondering the title of his autobiography. Lee Elder: Story of a Pioneer was being considered, but he wasn’t sure he liked it. Maybe a more appropriate title would have been Lee Elder: Savior of the game.

Farrell Evans has written about the intersection of golf and racing for Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, ESPN.COM, Bleacher Report, and The National. He’s co-host with PGA Tour veteran Bo Van Pelt of Both Sides of the Ball, a podcast that sparks conversations about golf, culture and everything in between.


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