How do we measure athletic greatness? By the number of big wins and unforgettable championships?
Or by something less obvious but perhaps more profound: an athlete’s resolve to go against the grain and upend the status quo in both sport and society, even at the risk of personal harm?
If the latter measure is as true a test as any, we must make room in the pantheon of the all-time greats for Lee Elder. An indefatigable African American golfer, he died on Sunday at age 87, nearly a half-century after he stood against the stultifying stain of racism and became the first Black golfer to play at the Masters, paving the way for no less than Tiger Woods.
“He was the first,” said Woods, not long after he stunned the sports world by winning the Masters in 1997, at age 21. “He was the one I looked up to. Because of what he did, I was able to play here, which was my dream.”
What a journey, what a life. The hard, tumultuous arc of sports in the back half of the 20th century — indeed the arc of American history during that time — can be traced through Elder.
He was a Black man born in the Jim Crow South who taught himself to play golf on segregated courses and polished his trade on the barnstorming golf tour akin to baseball’s Negro leagues.
He dreamed of making it to the biggest stage, but professional golf took its own sweet time while sports such as baseball, basketball and football slowly integrated. The Professional Golfers Association kept its Caucasian-only clause until 1961.
Elder never wavered. He broke through on the PGA Tour in 1968, as a 34-year-old. In those days, with the battle for civil rights well underway, the Masters began receiving pressure to add at least one Black player to its field. In 1973, a group of 18 congressional representatives even petitioned the tournament for just that. Elder was among the top 40 money earners on tour and had played in multiple U.S. Opens and P.G.A. Championships — so why not Augusta National?
But after choosing not to invite outstanding Black golfers such as Charlie Sifford during the 1960s, the tournament settled on a stringent requirement for its participants: victory at a PGA Tour event.
Elder earned that at the 1974 Monsanto Open — the same Florida event where, six years earlier, he had been forced to change clothes in a parking lot because Black people were not allowed to use the country club locker room.
Elder possessed an understated but firm resolve. He wasn’t quick to raise a fuss about racism, but he wasn’t afraid to speak up about it, either. “The Masters has never wanted a Black player, and they kept changing the rules to make it harder for Blacks,” he said, adding: “I got them off the hook by winning.”
Since its inception in 1934, the Masters has dripped in the antebellum codes of the South. Held at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, on a former indigo plantation, the only African Americans allowed on the course were groundskeepers and caddies. Nobody described the Masters more truthfully than the Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray. The tournament, he wrote in 1969, was “as white as the Ku Klux Klan.”
In the months leading up to the 1975 Masters, Elder was the target of multiple death threats. “Sometimes it was sent to the course where I was playing, sometimes it came to my house,” he said. “Stuff like, ‘You better watch behind trees,’ ‘You won’t make it to Augusta.’ It was bad stuff, but I expected it.”
But on April 10, 1975, there he stood, at the first tee, surrounded by a gallery full of close friends, including the football star Jim Brown. When Elder smashed his tee shot straight down the fairway, he did not just make history at the Masters, he pried open the cloistered and often racist world of golf to new possibilities.
Looking back at the contours of his career beyond 1975, one sees a consistent solidity. He won three more PGA Tour titles and then eight on the Senior Tour and represented the United States in the Ryder Cup. It will always be a great unknown — the heights Elder could have reached if the opportunity had been equal and he had been able to play PGA Tour events in his prime.
We can say this much for certain: Elder fixed himself in the sports history firmament at the Masters in 1975. He will always remain there, a North Star for others to follow.
Woods came along just over two decades later, winning the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes and announcing himself as the heir not just to Elder but to Jack Nicklaus, who won at Augusta six times. As Woods marched past a gallery of awe-struck fans on his way to receive the champion’s green jacket for the first of five times, he saw Elder, and the two embraced. Past met present, paving the future.
And yet the road to equality in golf remains elusive. The sport was overwhelmingly white in Elder’s era and overwhelmingly white when Woods burst on the scene. It remains overwhelmingly white.
The game is “still slacking quite a bit” when it comes to diversity, Cameron Champ, 26, whose mother is white and father is Black, said while speaking about Elder this week. Champ is one of the few players of African American heritage on tour and one of the game’s most vocal about the need to diversify.
It took until this year — prodded by tumultuous nationwide protests over racism and police brutality in 2020 — for the Masters to truly give Elder his due.
In April, aside Nicklaus and Gary Player, Elder sat at Augusta National’s first tee as an honorary starter for this year’s tournament. Tubes snaked into his nose to deliver oxygen. He was too hobbled to take a shot.
A gallery of the tournament’s players stood nearby, paying proper respect to a golfer whose greatness extended far beyond the fairway. The cold, crisp morning had a reverent, unforgettable feel, recalled Champ, whose paternal grandfather fell for golf in part because of Elder and then taught the game to his grandson.
But it took 46 years for golf to honor Elder at the Masters. Think about that.
Why didn’t it happen in 1985, the 10th anniversary of his smashing past Augusta National’s color line? Or in 1995, 20 years after the fact? Or at any other time?
Why must change always take so long?
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