On Nov. 9, 1961, the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, commonly known by its acronym, the PGA, repealed its longstanding “Caucasians only” rule. Prominent Black golfers Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes led the legal and moral battle to break the racial barrier that had denied them the opportunity to compete in the organization’s tournament against white players.
Fourteen years later, in April of 1975, 40-year-old Lee Elder became the first Black man to play in the Masters at the fabled and unwelcoming Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Elder missed the cut but had made an imprint that would expand beyond the meticulously manicured course in the geographic and cultural Deep South.
On Sunday, Elder, born in Dallas, Texas, passed away in Escondido, California at the age of 87. He represented the infuriating irony and duality of America. His father Charles was killed in Germany fighting for this country when young Lee was only nine, giving his life to the theoretical cause of liberty that was blatantly denied Black men and women on the land they called home.
By 12 he was sent to live with his aunt in Los Angeles, where he discovered his love for the sport of golf working as a caddie to earn money. In 1967, Elder raised money to attend qualifying school and a year later earned his tour card. On the tour, Elder and his Black contemporaries such as Pete Brown and Charles Owens would face racism from golfers and golf club members, often precluded from dressing and dining in the same quarters. Racially disparaging epithets from white tournament attendees and hate mail were the norm.
Elder channeled the vitriol to become an outspoken advocate of racial and social justice decades before the terms became widely referenced in the American lexicon. His stances included opposing the oppressive apartheid system of South Africa. On the grass, Elder’s legacy manifested when Tiger Woods became the first Black man to wear the Masters green winner’s blazer in 1997.
On Monday in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge, when Woods spoke publicly for the first time since sustaining severe injuries to his right leg that nearly led to it being amputated after a horrific single-vehicle accident on Feb. 23 in Southern California, part of the reason why he was able to sit before the media as arguably the greatest golfer of all-time is due to the trail blazed by Elder.
The 45-year-old Woods was fortunate to literally still be standing and figuratively standing on the shoulders of a giant.