Lee Elder, the first Black player to compete in the Masters Tournament at Augusta National in 1975, has passed away.
The cause of death was not immediately known, but Elder had been suffering from respiratory problems. Elder died Sunday during a visit with his wife Sharon to his step-daughter Dory’s house in San Diego, according to Arthur Johnson, a Jacksonville resident and a friend of Elder’s for more than 50 years.
Johnson added, “I talked to him on Thanksgiving and he sounded incredibly strong, in good spirits.” “This is proving to be quite challenging. We were best buddies… he was like a big brother to me.”
As a caddie in rural Dallas, Elder learned to play the game crosshanded. Elder’s grip was changed to a traditional grip by Ted Rhodes, another black pioneer who served as a mentor, and he went on to dominate the United Golf Association, a tour for Blacks during the PGA’s Caucasian-only rule, before earning his PGA Tour card in 1967, winning four times and qualifying for the 1979 U.S. Ryder Cup team.
“When I initially qualified for the Tour in 1967, I stated that I intended to complete the one thing that had eluded me. “The Masters was the only tournament that wasn’t integrated,” Elder told Golfweek at the time.
A group of legislators lobbied Augusta National to invite Elder two years before he qualified, but their request was denied.
Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts stated, “We are a little shocked as well as flattered that 18 Congressmen should be able to take time out to help us organize a golf event.” “…We believe someone mislead the esteemed legislators, because there is no and has never been any type of player discrimination, subtle or otherwise.”
Elder qualified for the Masters by holeing an 18-foot birdie putt on the fourth playoff hole to beat Peter Oosterhuis in the 1974 Monsanto Open at Pensacola Country Club in Florida, the same course where he had been refused entry into the clubhouse a few years before and had changed his shoes in the parking lot. It’s crucial to remember that Elder was whisked away to the clubhouse for good reason in order to comprehend the reality at the time.
“I didn’t understand why until we got in the car and they told me they’d received threats that if I won, they’d kill me,” Elder explained. “We had a lot of calls like that.”
He bounced between two rental houses simply to be safe during the week of the 1975 Masters, and remained up late with pals playing cards and trying to wrap his head around what it meant to break the color barrier at the Masters.
“A friend asked me, ‘Do you realize how much you’ve accomplished?’ ‘I feel like I do,’ I said. I feel like I’ve made a positive impact on society.’ “They said, ‘No, my man, you’re breaching a long-standing barrier,'” Elder recalled.
Elder wore green pants, a green shirt, and a green sweater 46 years ago on a rainy morning. When he was asked if he wanted a rainsuit, he said yes. “And you’re going to ruin this lovely green?” Elder remarked.
Elder returned to Augusta National in April, becoming the 10th honorary starter in Masters history.
Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said, “Today Lee Elder will inspire us and make history once more.” “The honors are yours, Lee.”
Elder, who needed oxygen to breathe, had a full set of golf clubs at the first tee box and balanced himself with a driver, but he was unable to fire a ball. “That feels nice,” he added as he sat down to another wave of applause.
Elder’s achievements were “remarkable,” according to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, given what he had to deal with, including discrimination at tournament sites, fans picking up his balls in the fairway and throwing them in the woods before he could get to them, and more than 100 death threats the week of his first appearance in the Masters.
Elder competed in five Masters, making three cuts and tying for 17th place in 1979. After a successful PGA Tour career, he went on to win nine times on the PGA Tour Champions.
Elder has been nominated for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, largely because of his historic achievement of qualifying for the Masters. Elder was a frequent visitor to the Hall of Fame, and he and Johnson often played on its courses.
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