Lee Elder played through the scourge of racism. He broke down enormous barriers. He carved a path for Tiger Woods and others to follow. Finally, in the waning months of his life, he took his rightful place at Augusta National. Alongside the greats.
Elder, who fought through numerous obstacles to become the first Black golfer to play in the Masters, died at the age of 87, the PGA Tour announced Monday.
“The game of golf lost a hero," 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus said.
No cause of death was given, but Elder had been in poor health and wore an oxygen tube when he attended the Masters in April.
The tour said he died early Sunday in Escondido, California.
At this year's Masters, Elder was given the honor of hitting a ceremonial opening tee shot alongside Nicklaus, a six-time Masters champion, and Gary Player, who won the green jacket three times.
Sadly, Elder was not well enough to take a swing at a ball he once hit with so much power.
But he stood briefly to acknowledge the cheers of the gallery, holding up his driver, and watched proudly from a chair at the first tee as Nicklaus and Player hit the shots that traditionally open the first major championship of the year.
“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” Elder said.
“That morning, you could see the joy in Lee’s face,” Nicklaus said Monday. “Gary Player and I were honored to enjoy that moment with him.”
A Texan who developed his game during segregated times while caddying and hustling for rounds, Elder made history in 1975 at Augusta National, which had held an all-white tournament until he received an invitation after winning the Monsanto Open the previous year.
Elder missed the cut at his first Masters but forever stamped himself as a groundbreaking figure in a sport that had never been known for racial tolerance.
Twenty-two years later, Woods became the first Black golfer to capture the green jacket, launching one of the greatest careers in golf history.
After Woods' record 12-stroke victory in 1997 — the first of his five Masters titles and 15 major championships overall — he reflected on the contributions of Black golfers such as Elder and Charlie Sifford, the tour's first Black player.
“I thought about those guys coming up 18,” Woods said that evening. “I said a little prayer and said thanks. I wasn’t the first. I wasn’t the pioneer. I thank them. I think that’s why this victory is even more special. Lee, because of what he did, I was able to play here. Because of Charlie, I was able to play on the PGA Tour. I lived my dream because of those guys.”
Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, called Elder “a true pioneer in the game of golf.”
Elder got into golf as a caddie, since that essentially was the only conduit Black players had to be permitted on the course. He was able to polish his game while serving in the Army and, after his discharge, joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black players in the early 1960s.
He developed into one of the UGA’s best players, winning 18 of 22 tournaments in one dominating stretch, but meager prize money made it tough to earn a living. Finally, at the age of 33, Elder had saved up enough to afford PGA qualifying school, where he earned his first tour card for the 1968 season.
Elder would go on to capture four PGA Tour victories and eight more wins on the PGA Tour Champions for 50-and-over players. He played in all four major championships, tying for 11th at both the 1974 PGA Championship and the 1979 U.S. Open.
But Elder’s impact on the game went far beyond wins and losses, even if it took decades for his legacy to be fully appreciated.
Elder, who is survived by his wife, Sharon, was at Augusta National for Woods’ historic win in 1997. He wasn’t about to miss seeing a Black golfer win the tournament for the first time.
After all, it was Elder who paved the way.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.