Remembering life and legacy of golf trailblazer Lee Elder

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 7:55 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The golf world lost a trailblazer.

Lee Elder – four-time PGA tour winner and the first Black man to ever play in the Masters Tournament – died at the age of 87.

He was honored by the Masters Tournament this past year as an honorary starter, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, for his huge contributions to golf and equality for all. And that’s a legacy that will long outlive his 87 years.

A lot of golfers are born into a life of opportunity and privilege. Lee Elder was born Black — in 1934 in a Dallas ghetto.

“I never thought in my mind that I would have the success that I have had and be able to accomplish the things I have accomplished,” said Elder.

He told us that at the Masters Tournament in 2019 — the year Tiger would accomplish one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.

“Things Tiger has been able to achieve, the following he has acquired, all the people who have really turned to the game because of him ... I’d like to think I have a small hand in helping him get to that plateau,” said Elder.

And, it’s safe to say he played more than a small hand at the 1975 Masters Tournament, when he hit a tee shot heard around the world and became the first Black man to play in the Masters.

“What I remember so much about my first visit here, was that every tee and every green that I walked up, I got tremendous ovations,” said Elder.

Several years ago, longtime Augusta National caddie Carl Jackson told us what that moment was like as a Black man. When everyone else was watching Elder’s first shot, he was watching their faces.

“I just wanted to look some people in the face. Your expressions tell on you. What’s in your heart, in your mind. Living through the days of the death of Kennedy and King, you’re looking for something. You’re looking for hope. And I saw hope,” said Jackson.

And that hope, continues. After a year of racial strife across the country, in 2020, Augusta National made a very loud gesture for a club often criticized for silence.

“The courage and commitment of Lee Elder and other trailblazers like him inspired men and women of color to pursue their rightful opportunity to compete and follow their dreams,” said Fred Ridley, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club. “But in reality, that opportunity is still elusive for many. We have a long way to go, and we can and we must do more.”

The tournament funded a scholarship in his name at Paine College. It also announced two scholarships bearing Elder’s name that will be awarded yearly to a male and female golfer at the school. And the club announced it would recognize Elder as an honorary starter for the 2021 Masters Tournament.

“Today Lee Elder will inspire us. And make history once more, not with a drive, but with his presence, strength, and character. Lee, It’s my privilege to say, you have the honors,” Ridley said in opening this year’s tournament.

Elder accomplished a lot in his career: four PGA tour wins, a Ryder Cup victory, the Bob Jones Award — a trailblazer, to say the least. But you would never hear him brag about any of it. Elder was humble. Gracious. Unpretentious. And kind.

“I just want to say thank you so very much to have me here. It’s a great honor, and I cherish it very much, and I will always cherish it, and I want to thank the chairman for extending me this great privilege,” Elder said at the start of this year’s tournament.

He never set out to change the world. He just wanted to be a good golfer. But this orphan — who cut class to pick up caddy shifts — exceeded the odds. And did both.

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