The Washington Post
Elder’s influence on golf cannot be measured in wins
Nothing ever came easily or quickly for Lee Elder.
Elder died Sunday at 87, and the tributes poured in. Finally.
Gary Player, who grew up in apartheidravaged South Africa, was perhaps the only person in golf who understood what Elder accomplished. “One of the things that is quite sad,” Player told Sports Illustrated in 2008, “is that Americans don’t know how significant it was what Lee did. Many athletes are given great rewards for their athletic prowess. I think Lee Elder did something that beats the prowess of an athlete.” Amen to that.
Elder certainly wasn’t the only Black athlete to face racism. Jackie Robinson is the most famous of them, but baseball was never as racist of a sport as golf. Elder is most famous for breaking the color line at the Masters in 1975, becoming the first Black player to play in the tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.
His appearance came 14 years after the PGA of America was finally forced to abandon the “Caucasians-only clause” in its bylaws. It was another 15 years after Elder first played in the Masters before Augusta National admitted a Black member — a move that came only after Augusta member Hall Thompson was quoted as saying Shoal Creek, the golf club he founded in Birmingham, Ala., would never consider admitting a Black member.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Augusta National got around to admitting two women as members. In his eloquent obituary of Elder, longtime Washington Post reporter Leonard Shapiro refers to the “tradition-bound Masters.” The Masters is run by the membership of Augusta National. Two of its longstanding traditions were racism and misogyny.
Elder was the youngest of 10 children. His father died fighting in World War II, and his mother died several months later. He was shuttled from place to place by various relatives and began caddying and hustling at golf courses at the age of 12. He spent two years in the Army beginning in 1959 and then decided to give golf a shot as a professional early in 1961.
That was before the PGA of America abandoned the “Caucasians-only” clause. In the interim, Elder played on the United Golfers Association tour for Black players and won 21 of 23 tournaments during one stretch. First prize in those events was typically around $500.
It wasn’t until 1967, at 33, that he qualified for the PGA Tour. A year later, he almost beat Jack Nicklaus in a five-hole playoff at The American Golf Classic. Had he won, he still would not have been invited to the Masters. Pete Brown and Charlie Sifford (twice) had already won on tour and not been invited to play at Augusta.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the Masters changed its rules to extend an invitation to anyone who won on the PGA Tour.
Elder earned his spot at Augusta in 1975 by winning the 1974 Monsanto Open. After receiving a number of death threats, Elder missed the cut, but he played there five more times, twice finishing in the top 20. He won four times on the PGA Tour and eight times on the Senior Tour. He also became the first Black player to qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1979.
That’s quite a résumé, although based on sheer numbers Elder’s not a Hall of Famer. But, as Player pointed out, his accomplishments go way beyond numbers. He spent most of his life and career overcoming things — notably racism.
He accepted an invitation from Player to play in South Africa in 1971, and his presence forced the government to drop apartheid rules while he was participating there. He and his first wife, Rose, lived in D.C. for 25 years, and during that time they managed the traditionally Black Langston Golf Course.
On many occasions, Elder was forced to change in the parking lot at clubs where PGA Tour events were being played because Blacks were barred from the clubhouse. He overcame more things than anyone playing on tour today — including Tiger Woods — can possibly imagine.
In 1997, just after he won the Masters by 12 shots at the age of 21, Woods was invited to a ceremony in New York commemorating the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Among those taking part were President Bill Clinton and Robinson’s widow, Rachel. Woods turned down the invitation, saying he was going on vacation.
Almost a year later, I asked him how he could possibly say no.
“They didn’t invite me until after I won the Masters,” he said. “Why didn’t they invite me before that?”
“Because,” I answered, “until you won, the person they should have invited was Lee Elder. He broke the color line at Augusta, not you.”
Woods stared at me for a second and then said, “You might be right.”
Of course, no one ever considered inviting Elder to that ceremony. No one has ever seriously considered looking beyond Elder’s very solid career as a player to consider him for the World Golf Hall of Fame. And it took the membership of Augusta National 46 years to get around to inviting Elder to participate along with Player and Nicklaus as an honorary starter at the Masters last April.
By then, Elder was 86 and couldn’t actually step up to the tee and hit a drive. Instead, he stood and waved to the crowd. Later that morning, he talked about how grateful he was to the Augusta membership for inviting him to take part in the ceremony. Most of the media acted as if the green jackets had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In truth, the members should have been grateful to Elder for not saying: “Now you invite me? Where were you in 1998, the year after Woods won the Masters and said the road had been paved for him by Ted Rhodes, Charlie Sifford and me?”
But that was never Elder’s style. He spoke softly but always carried a very efficient driver. Like his friend Robinson, he refused to be baited by racist fans or by a largely racist sport.
Sifford was the first Black player elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame — in 2004. Woods has just been elected in his first year of eligibility — an absolute no-brainer for the greatest player of all time. Maybe, in his acceptance speech, he can point out that Elder should have been inducted years ago for all that he accomplished that went way beyond athletic prowess.
If and when the selection committee gets around to electing him, it will — again — be much later than it should have been. But it sure as heck should happen.