Lee Elder, who broke the color barrier at the Masters, passed away on Sunday. He was 87 years old.
The news was first published by Summary of African American golfer And confirmed by the PGA Tour, it comes less than a year after Elder served as an honorary start for the Masters for the first time. The sheikh is survived by his wife, Sharon.
Elder has won four times on the PGA Tour, but his battles against exclusivity will be remembered far more than his play. He was a champion of racial justice and was one of the pioneers who ripped the ropes of apartheid at the Augusta National when he became the first black golfer to compete in the Masters Tournament in 1975.
Born in Dallas on July 14, 1934, Elder was orphaned 10 years later when his father was killed in World War II and his mother died soon after. He moved to Los Angeles and took odd jobs at local golf courses, where he met Joe Louis and Ted Rhodes, who took an interest in teaching Elder to improve his game.
By 1961, Elder had joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black Players. He dominated the ring, winning 18 of 22 championships in one stint.
Elder finally made it to the PGA Tour in 1968 and lost a memorable playoff to Nicklaus at Firestone in his rookie season. Although it was hard to fight to make it to the round, his real battle was just beginning. During a tournament in Memphis, an elder ball mysteriously disappeared during the tour – another player, Terry Dale, said he saw a spectator pick up an elder ball and dispose of it; Elder was handed over for free – and received death threats to his hotel. At the 1968 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida, Elder and other black players were forced to change clothes in the parking lot because club members did not allow non-whites in their club.
Fittingly, Elder won at Pensacola in 1974 to earn his historic master’s calling. He demolished one of the sport’s longest race barriers at 11:15 a.m. on April 10, 1975, when he became the first black golfer to compete in the Masters Tournament.
Elder said he had received as many as 100 death threats in the run-up to the Masters, but when tournament week arrived he heard cheers. “In every green area I walked on, the applause was massive,” he said 40 years later. “I mean, every one of them shouted, ‘Go, Lee! Good luck, Lee!”
He missed the discount that week but it wasn’t by knocking down the barriers. In 1979, he became the first black golfer to qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He became a crusader for social and economic justice. He has spoken out against country clubs that excluded African Americans from joining, and created the Lee Elder Scholarship Fund, which provides financial assistance to low-income men and women seeking money for college.
Elder joined the PGA Tour Champions in 1984 and finished with nine wins, including six in his first 26 games.
Less than nine months after Elder broke the Augusta color barrier, a boy named Eldrick Tont Woods was born in Cypress, California. 21 years later, Elder was in Augusta when Woods made history by winning the 1997 Masters Championship.
“You thought I won the golf championship,” Elder said. “Being there, to see what Tiger did, means the world to me.”
This past April at Augusta National, Elder stood alongside fellow honorary juniors Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player before playing the 85th Masters Tournament. Off the ropes, there were several black members of the American PGA, all inspired by Elder, who watched Masters head Fred Ridley awarded Elder his first ceremonial honor while adding that Elder “will make history again, not through leadership, but with his presence, strength and character.”
“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had or been involved in,” Elder said. “It’s definitely something I will cherish for the rest of my life.”