Lee Elder: Remembering the first black man to play in the Masters

“My tee shot landed in the middle of the first fairway,” recalls the 82-year-old. “How I accomplished that I do not know.”

The words of Lee Elder as he reflected on his opening tee shot at the 1975 Masters. Speaking with CNN about this watershed moment, Elder seemed aware of his role in affecting change.

Born in Dallas, Texas, Elder was moved around as a child, eventually settling in Los Angeles where he would frequently cut school to caddy. He would have to wait until his sixteenth birthday before he played a full round of golf.

Three men are denied access to a golf course in Columbus, Ohio, in January 1956. Blacks were regularly denied access to golf courses. Source : AP

In 1967 Elder raised enough money to attend qualifying school for the PGA Tour. He finished 9th out of a class of 122 and gained his tour card for 1968. He was a solid performer, finishing 40th on the money list.

Elder found himself making history at every turn. In 1971 Gary Player invited him to play in the South African PGA Championship. The country had apartheid policies in effect at the time, but he agreed to participate after the South African government agreed not to subject him or spectators to the usual segregation requirements. It marked the first integrated tournament in the country’s history.

Elder’s ride was far from smooth. At the Monsanto Open in 1968 in Pensacola, Florida, Elder and other black players were forced to change their clothes in the parking lot because members of the club would not allow non-whites in their clubhouse. How satisfying it must have been for him to go back six years later and win the same tournament–this time he walked into the clubhouse with a police escort.

“I had made a statement that I would never go back there to Pensacola because we couldn’t go in the clubhouse. I went back in 1973 and played, then went back in 1974 and won. “I was so overwhelmed with the fact that I had qualified and won there, the place where the problem had occurred.”

Lee Elder, 2015.

Lee Elder wins the 1974 Monsanto Open and qualifies for the Masters. Source : CNN

Elder’s win at the Monsanto Open came with an invitation to the following Masters–which he had a full year to ponder.

“I did consider not going,” Elder says. “It was on my mind and I think the reason why I had thought about it was because it had been so difficult qualifying for the Masters. “Then it was changed and they were going to take all tournament winners in 1970, then I knew it was a chance of getting to the Masters, which I did.”

Elder’s reservations were confirmed in the build up. “Yes, I did have threats,” he explained. “It was frightening. You try to eliminate the possibility of anything happening,” he added, referring to his decision to rent two houses during the Masters week.“The logic behind that was the fact we did not want the people to know where I was staying.”

Fortunately Elder remembers the historic day for all the right reasons.

“It was a very wonderful reception. When I got to the club I was met by the then chairman Clifford Roberts, who welcomed me to Augusta.”

That’s the same Clifford Roberts who was once quoted saying: “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black.” Again, Elder was able to have the last laugh.

SEE ALSO: The fateful suicide of Clifford Roberts

Lee Elder tees off during his first round at Augusta. Source : BBC

“When I walked onto the tee the fairway was lined with people right down to the green almost. It was pretty frightening. The reception was fantastic. “The claps and the whistles were so tremendous. Almost every green I went to the crowd clapped, if they were sitting they stood up to give me applause.”

The 1975 Masters was a turning point for the sport–much like Augusta’s decision to finally accept women 37 years later–these are the moments which force social issues to be addressed.

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