Lee Elder, who broke down radical barriers arsenic the archetypal Black golfer to play successful the Masters and paved the mode for Tiger Woods and others to follow, has died astatine the property of 87.
The PGA Tour announced Elder’s death, which was archetypal reported Monday by Debert Cook of African American Golfers Digest. No origin was given, but the circuit confirmed Elder's decease with his family.
He had been successful mediocre wellness and wore an oxygen conduit beneath his chemoreceptor erstwhile helium appeared astatine the opening of the Masters successful April. The circuit said helium died aboriginal Sunday successful Escondido, California.
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“Lee was a bully player, but astir important, a bully antheral who was precise good respected by countless people,” Jack Nicklaus wrote connected his Twitter account. “The crippled of play mislaid a leader successful Lee Elder.”
A Texan who developed his crippled during segregated times portion caddying and hustling for rounds, Elder made past successful 1975 astatine Augusta National, which had held an all-white tourney until helium received an invitation aft winning the Monsanto Open the erstwhile year.
Elder missed the chopped astatine his archetypal Masters but everlastingly stamped himself arsenic a groundbreaking fig successful a athletics that had ne'er been known for radical tolerance.
Twenty-two years later, Woods became the archetypal Black golfer to seizure the greenish jacket, launching 1 of the top careers successful play history.
“Lee Elder was a pioneer, and successful truthful galore ways,” Nicklaus said. “Yes, helium was the archetypal achromatic golfer to play successful the Masters Tournament, but that simply underlined the hard enactment Lee enactment successful to further the origin of everyone who has a imagination to play connected the PGA Tour and possibly thinks determination were excessively galore barriers earlier them.”
After his grounds 12-stroke triumph successful 1997 — the archetypal of 5 Masters and 15 large titles that Woods has won — helium reflected connected the contributions of Black golfers specified arsenic Elder and Charlie Sifford.
“I thought astir those guys coming up 18,” Woods said that evening. “I said a small supplication and said thanks. I wasn’t the first. I wasn’t the pioneer. I convey them. I deliberation that’s wherefore this triumph is adjacent much special. Lee, due to the fact that of what helium did, I was capable to play here. Because of Charlie, I was capable to play connected the PGA Tour. I lived my imagination due to the fact that of those guys.”
This past April, successful the aftermath of societal justness protests that roiled the nation, the Masters honored Elder by having him articulation Nicklaus and Gary Player for the ceremonial opening tee shots.
Elder's mediocre wellness prevented him from taking a swing, but helium held up his operator proudly astatine the archetypal tee, intelligibly moved by the moment.
“For maine and my family, I deliberation it was 1 of the astir affectional experiences that I person ever witnessed oregon been progressive in,” Elder said.
“That morning, you could spot the joyousness successful Lee’s face,” Nicklaus said Monday. “Gary Player and I were honored to bask that infinitesimal with him.”
Fred Ridley, president of Augusta National and the Masters, called Elder “a existent pioneer successful the crippled of golf.”
“Lee was an inspiration to truthful galore young men and women of colour not lone done his play, but besides done his committedness to acquisition and community,” Ridley said successful a statement. "Lee volition ever beryllium a portion of the past of the Masters Tournament. His beingness volition beryllium sorely missed, but his bequest volition proceed to beryllium celebrated.”
Elder got into play arsenic a caddie, since that fundamentally was the lone conduit Black radical had to beryllium permitted connected the course. He was capable to polish his crippled portion serving successful the Army and, aft his discharge, joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black players successful the aboriginal 1960s.
He developed into 1 of the UGA’s champion players, winning 18 of 22 tournaments successful 1 dominating stretch, but meager prize wealth made it pugnacious to gain a living. Finally, astatine the property of 33, Elder was capable to spend PGA qualifying school, wherever helium earned his archetypal circuit paper for the 1968 season.
The item of his rookie twelvemonth was a memorable nonaccomplishment to Nicklaus connected the 5th spread of a sudden-death playoff astatine Firestone Country Club successful Akron, Ohio.
Elder would spell connected to seizure 4 PGA Tour victories and 8 much wins connected the PGA Tour Champions for 50-and-over players. He played successful each 4 large championships, tying for 11th astatine some the 1974 PGA Championship and the 1979 U.S. Open.
His champion decorativeness successful six Masters appearances was a necktie for 17th successful 1979.
But Elder’s interaction connected the crippled went acold beyond wins and losses, adjacent if it took decades for his bequest to beryllium afloat appreciated.
“It ever amazed maine that presidents of the United States would beryllium giving these antithetic awards to athletes for their diversion prowess, and present was a antheral that ... was ne'er fixed the awards that helium really duly deserved,” Player said.
Elder was 40 erstwhile helium played successful his archetypal Masters, truthful galore of his premier years already stolen from him by the scourge of racism.
The PGA had a Caucasian-only regularisation until 1961 — 14 years aft Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier. It took different 14 years earlier the Masters yet invited a Black player.
Last year, earlier the pandemic-delayed Masters was played successful November for the archetypal time, Augusta National formally recognised Elder’s tremendous contributions by mounting up 2 scholarships successful his sanction astatine Paine College, a historically Black schoolhouse successful the eastbound Georgia city.
The nine besides invited him to instrumentality portion successful the ceremonial tee changeable with Nicklaus and Player astatine this year’s Masters.
“That is 1 happening that’s going to beryllium important to me, due to the fact that 1975 was conscionable an mean changeable playing a play tournament, adjacent though it was the Masters,” Elder said astatine the time. “It’s not arsenic important arsenic this changeable volition beryllium travel April 8, 2021. Because my bosom and psyche volition beryllium into this shot.”
Sadly, helium was not capable to instrumentality it. Elder watched from a seat astatine the archetypal tee arsenic Nicklaus and Player made their swings.
But Elder was profoundly moved conscionable to beryllium successful their institution astatine specified a hallowed spot.
Past Masters champions Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, some successful their greenish jackets, made definite they were determination for the ceremony. So was Cameron Champ, 1 of 4 players of Black practice connected the PGA Tour.
“It’s a large honor, and I cherish it precise much, and I volition ever cherish it,” Elder said.
Added Nicklaus, “It was agelong overdue.”
Robert Lee Elder was calved connected July 14, 1934, successful Dallas, Texas, the youngest of 10 children.
His begetter was killed successful enactment during World War II erstwhile Elder was 9, and his parent died 3 months later. He was taken successful by an aunt, Sarah, erstwhile helium was 11 and lived for a clip successful Los Angeles earlier returning to Texas.
“My aunt was an unthinkable person,” Elder wrote successful Golf Digest successful 2019. “She gave maine emotion and discipline, didn’t fto maine get excessively acold retired of line. Her resources were limited, but she carried herself with large dignity, communicated good with radical and taught maine close from wrong. I was connected my ain aft astir property 16, but she got maine to a constituent wherever I could attraction for myself.”
That was astir the clip Elder played a afloat 18-hole circular for the archetypal time, stoking his emotion for play adjacent more.
He caddied, hustled games whenever helium could and further developed his skills successful the Army portion serving nether a golf-loving colonel who assigned him to a peculiar portion wherever helium could play regularly.
“It’s singular to look backmost connected Lee’s beingness and vocation and realise the hardships helium endured and the sacrifices helium made to scope golf’s highest level,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said. “To person the occurrence helium had, portion paving the mode for others to imagination large and achieve, is simply a testament to the benignant of antheral helium was and however overmuch endowment helium possessed."
Elder knew Robinson, who died successful 1972, and was adjacent with Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats passim his stellar shot career, peculiarly arsenic helium approached what was Babe Ruth’s location tally mark.
Aaron deed his record-breaking 715th homer connected April 8, 1974.
Twelve days later, Elder won the Monsanto Open to suffice for the pursuing year’s Masters.
Elder visited with Aaron soon earlier the Hammer died successful January.
“We talked astir respective things ... our sports, our peculiar athletics and the engagement that we felt that we could assistance different young Blacks that was coming up down us,” Elder said. “And I surely anticipation that the things that I person done person inspired a batch of young Black players and they volition proceed connected with it.”
Elder, who is survived by his wife, Sharon, was astatine Augusta National for Woods’ historical triumph successful 1997. He wasn’t astir to miss seeing a Black golfer triumph the tourney for the archetypal time.
After all, it was Elder who paved the way.
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